June 14, 2023 | New York Post

Why is Biden appeasing a Putin pawn as NATO forces are attacked?

June 14, 2023 | New York Post

Why is Biden appeasing a Putin pawn as NATO forces are attacked?

As Russian President Vladimir Putin performs poorly in Ukraine, he will employ every possible tactic to distract the West.

This time, Russia, with Serbia’s help, is provoking chaos in Europe’s soft underbelly — the Balkans.

The goal is to push the Balkans to the brink and trigger ethnic violence because that allows the Kremlin to undermine NATO and reestablish Russia as the region’s power broker.

So why are President Joe Biden and his team going along with the plan?

Air-raid sirens blared Tuesday in northern Kosovo when ethnic Serbs clashed with police after a suspected Serb protest leader was arrested.

Two weeks ago, following municipal elections of ethnically Albanian mayors, Serbian protesters did the same with NATO troops, injuring 30 members of the alliance’s peacekeeping force, KFOR.

Of Kosovo’s 1.8 million residents, 92% are Albanian and only 6% are Serbian.

The small country has long been a US ally; it’s the place where people name their kids after American leaders and the home of George W. Bush Boulevard and Bob Dole Street.

Kosovo loves America because Washington helped the area during Serbia’s crackdown against ethnic Albanians and supported its independence in 2008.

American love is clearly not unconditional.

Instead of calling out Serbia’s troublemaking, the US ambassador to Kosovo accused that nation’s government of creating “this crisis atmosphere in the north,” and the US ambassador to Serbia praised that country for being a constructive partner.

America removed Kosovo from participation in its current NATO exercise, “Defender Europe 23.”

This strange shift in American policy is rooted in Biden’s risk aversion and fear of Russian escalation.

The United States worries Serbia will pivot towards Russia and allow Putin to open another front of conflict.

But if there is one thing the Biden administration should know, it is appeasing Russia emboldens Putin.

The Serbian armed forces will participate in the multinational military exercise “Platinum Wolf” with NATO. The US embassy of Serbia enthusiastically said this shows Serbia “has chosen the West.”

This statement could not be more mistaken.

Serbia’s balancing strategy between Russia and Washington has allowed this exercise to be held seven times since 2014 already.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s reaction represents his favorite tactic to escalate and then de-escalate to use Kosovo as a bargaining chip with the West.

The Kremlin is already encouraging Serbia to escalate further.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the outbreak of violence “worrisome” and attributed the blame to the West: “A big ‘explosion’ is brewing in the center of Europe, in the very place where, in 1999, NATO carried out aggression against Yugoslavia.”

Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko said the situation in Kosovo is a form of  ”hybrid war” and alleged Vucic’s opponents want to do “a Maidan-style coup,” referring to the 2013-14 Ukraine uprising.

Russia is also meddling on the ground.

In February, Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani warned members of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group are working with Serbian paramilitaries.

The West’s blindness to Vucic’s and Putin’s power games and its blaming Kosovo represents a realpolitik strategy.

The United States believes Serbia is more strategically important than Kosovo, as Washington knows Vucic could easily partner with Moscow to ignite a new conflict in the region.

American appeasement towards Serbia will not work: Serbia-Russia relations are alive and well. 

Serbia’s cooperation with the West in military exercises and empty rhetoric is part of its balancing strategy between Russia and Washington, not a sign of its allegiance to the West. 

In the wake of Russia’s war, Serbia never adopted sanctions against Russia.

Last month, Serbia’s pro-Russian intelligence-agency director Aleksandar Vulin traveled to Moscow for a security conference. 

Serbia is not the victim of Russian influence. As a part of his broader objective to remain in power, Vucic has leveraged instability in the region to frame himself as a force for stability.

By escalating and then de-escalating the crisis and negotiating with the West under his terms, Vucic has positioned himself as a moderate deal-maker in the region.

And he’s exploited the escalating situation in Kosovo to distract his constituents from mounting domestic challenges.

Russia has long wanted to demonstrate NATO is a paper tiger.

The KFOR must send a credible signal it’s ready to intervene against Serbian forces in case of escalation.

Last week, NATO employed 700 troops to bolster security in the area. This is a step in the right direction.

Instead of appeasing Serbia, America should pressure Belgrade to accept Kosovo’s independence and impose sanctions on Russia.

The West ought to call Russia’s bluff to make Vucic aware of Russia’s untrustworthiness as an ally.

The Russian ambassador to Serbia encouraged Belgrade to count on Moscow’s support vis-à-vis Kosovo and described the situation as “on the verge of a wider conflict.”

With Russian military resources exhausted in Ukraine, the Kremlin cannot support Serbia.

And a direct confrontation with NATO would not serve Vucic’s interests. 

The West must recognize weakness emboldens Putin and Vucic. 

Russia and Serbia will continue to heat up this frozen conflict again when it suits their interests.

Instead of allowing Moscow to invalidate NATO, it is time for the West to prove the Kremlin is nothing more than an empty shell.

Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @ivanastradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy Ukraine