From the debunked Russiagate affair, the ambiguous downing of MH17, to the highly suspect 2018 poisoning the Skripals, the finger of blame for any political aberration or malfeasance worldwide during the past decade has remained perpetually pointed at Russia. More recently, the Russian bogeyman has again reared its head in the breakaway region of Kosovo, allegedly fanning the flames of tension and division during recent unrest between Kosovo’s Serb and Albanian communities. However, these allegations now look set to unravel before really taking root, laying bare their utility to Pristina’s agenda and the West’s political and public relations objectives in the region.
In late February, Commander of NATO’s Force in Kosovo (KFOR), Angelo Michele Ristuccia, publicly contradicted the repeated claims made by Kosovo’s PM, Albi Kurti, that Russia’s PMC, The Wagner Group, is engaged in agitation operations in Kosovo’s north. “First of all, let me say that it is our professional and moral duty to fully understand the situation” said Ristuccia in an interview with outlet Klan Kosova. “Let’s give each phenomenon the appropriate dimension. Allow me to assure the entire population of Kosovo that we are fully informed about everything that is happening on the ground”, he continued. When asked about Kurti’s assertions of Wagner’s presence and activities in Kosovo, he replied: “At the moment, we have no evidence of what you mean. We have no information about it”.
Kurti’s initial claims came in December, after Serbs blocked roads leading to Serb majority enclaves. This occurred in protest of the arrest of a Serb policeman by Kosovo’s authorities, and other incidences of Kosovo’s Police Force perceived to be abusing their powers with unwarranted searches of premises and forceful apprehensions of individuals. In one case, an armoured vehicle of the Regional Operational Support Unit of the Kosovo Police arrived and parked in a Serb kindergarten in Leposavic, where armed KFOR troops had also arrived, allegedly by mistake, the previous day. Consequently, many Kosovo Serbs in the region’s north interpreted the tactics exhibited by Kosovo’s authorities during December as targeted intimidation.
In January, Kurti claimed to have proof of his allegations, but said he could not disclose the evidence in order to protect the source. Nonetheless, he swiftly seized the opportunity to call for more NATO troops to be stationed in Kosovo as a countermeasure, during an interview with German outlet, Welt.
Ristuccia’s statement also belies more recent allegations made by Kosovo’s President, Vjosa Osmani. In mid-February, Osmani told UK outlet, The Telegraph, That Wagner is collaborating with Belgrade to “prepare situations for a possible annexation”. She stated there was “clear evidence” Serbia is using the “same playbook” as Russia in Crimea and is preparing “all kinds of false flag operations” to justify a military intervention. Russia’s intention in the situation she said, was to “attack values-based systems such as NATO and the EU”.
Since the advent of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, commentators have also pointed toward Kurti and Osmani’s cynical attempts to draw parallels between Kosovo and Ukraine, to garner greater political support for the cause of Kosovo’s international recognition. During heightened tensions in December, Osmani delivered a speech on military preparedness to Kosovo Security Forces (KSF), dressed quite atypically in olive green military garb. This was interpreted by some as Pristina’s steadfast position in the face of a possible return to violence, and by others as a painfully conspicuous imitation of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, and droll PR stunt. In commemoration of what many consider the first full year of war in Ukraine, Kurti also recently addressed a letter to Zelensky. In it, he states that, “there is nothing Russia and Serbia would want more than to spread the conflict in Ukraine to the Western Balkans. Your purpose is our purpose, your struggle is our struggle”.
Pristina’s ploys become increasingly transparent in light of Ristuccia’s admission, which also raises questions on the authenticity of similar claims emanating from the West, of Russia’s destabilising influence in the Balkans as a whole. It would be safe to assume that if evidence of Kurti and Osmani’s claims were in circulation, it would certainly be on Ristuccia’s radar, and that he would make no secret of this. In fact, given NATO’s current proxy war in Ukraine and intensifying information war against Russia that has spanned decades, it seems institutionally uncharacteristic that Ristuccia would fail to corroborate their claims, even in the absence of evidence.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines in September last year, a number of officials from NATO member states wasted no time in pointing the finger of blame at Russia. The former head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), Gerhard Schindler, suggested just days after that “only Russia” could be to blame, as it provided a convenient way out of breaking supply contracts. Five European officials with inside knowledge of the subsequent security discussions also carried this line, with one stating under anonymity that, “no one on the European side of the ocean is thinking this is anything other than Russian sabotage”. Such claims were then echoed across Western legacy media in a litany of spurious op-eds, before eventually transpiring as fallacy in light of Seymour Hersh’s comprehensive investigation, which lands blame for the attacks firmly in Washington and Oslo.
NATO and Western powers have made a necessary custom out of accusing others of the very crimes and activities they themselves are engaged in, and it appears the habit is rubbing off on their clients in Pristina. Specious rumours of malign Russian influence in Kosovo via Wagner, arguably deflect from reports that weaponry sent by the US to Ukraine is being sold on the black market in Kosovo amongst criminal and terrorist networks. Belgrade also claims possession of intelligence proving that the UK and US have been providing anti-tank weaponry to Kosovo, in violation of UN Resolution 1244.
Likewise, hysteria over a still intangible “explosion” of Russian disinformation, attempts to sweep leaked documents that detail the West’s own attempts to manipulate the media landscape in Kosovo, swiftly under the rug. A 2021 investigation by Kit Klarenberg, demonstrated that a UK FCDO funded project run by the ‘Peaceful Change Initiative’, entitled ‘Strengthening Positive Peace in Kosovo and Serbia’, aimed at specifically targeting Serb audiences in Kosovo. Leaked documentation details an intention to recruit Kosovo Serb youth and social media influencers as “change agents”, to “challenge identity-based narratives”, and achieve “social change at the national level”. Whilst perhaps seeming benign, the documents also detail that great effort should be made to obscure UK FCDO involvement, so that the initiative might seem organic. A separate but related leak has also demonstrated the variety of drastic lengths Whitehall is willing to resort to, in order to remove obstacles to its aspirations for the Balkan region.
Kurti and Osmani’s scaremongering over the danger of a Russian facilitated ‘annexation’, and exaltation of the ‘values-based systems’ of their benefactors, is of course not without irony given Kosovo’s recent history and NATO’s role therein. Along with the relativising of Ukraine’s situation with Kosovo’s, these strategies are increasingly now catering for Western European audiences and stand to serve the political and PR goals of both parties. While aiding Pristina’s pushes for greater sympathies within the international community and a bolstering of military force in their favour, they enable NATO powers to further disseminate the notion of Russia’s intent to destabilise the whole of Europe, thus further justifying their proxy war in Ukraine. Furthermore, they help conveniently gloss over the provocative directives issued by Pristina in Kosovo’s north, and provide cover for the clandestine operations of the US and UK in the region.
There is every chance that ongoing negotiations between Kurti and Vučić toward a normalisation of ties between Pristina and Belgrade, will further inflame tensions in the decades old frozen conflict, with the prospect already inducing protest in Serbia. Therefore, if evidence of nefarious Russian agitation remains absent, perhaps Pristina’s rhetoric could be concentrated toward constructive management of the situation, should of course the motive exist.