The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised alarms about potential conflicts in the Western Balkans. Even though such fears have not materialised, there seems to be significant instability in some parts of the region. We talked about the relations between Serbia and NATO in the context of the war in Ukraine, the role of the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo and the security situation in the region with Javier Colomina, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, who visited Belgrade on Monday.
European Western Balkans: How would you assess the security situation in the Western Balkans in the changed geopolitical circumstances caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Javier Colomina: First of all, Russia’s unjustified and brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace and gravely altered our security environment. It has represented a tectonic change of the European security landscape. Russia’s brutal and unlawful invasion, repeated violations of international humanitarian law and heinous attacks and atrocities have caused unspeakable suffering and destruction.
Against this backdrop, NATO has been pursuing a two-fold approach. We have being supporting Ukraine, without becoming party to the conflict, hence preventing a further escalation of the ongoing war beyond the borders of Ukraine. Overall NATO Allies have provided around 120 billion US dollars in military, humanitarian, and financial assistance. At the same time, we have enhanced our collective deterrence and defence posture, making thus clear that all 30 Allies are fully committed to protect and defend every inch of NATO’s territory.
Secondly, the Western Balkans region has come a long way since the conflicts of the 1990s, but lately we have seen recurring tensions, including in Kosovo, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, with more aggressive rhetoric, stalled reforms and foreign actors working to undermine progress. We have also seen cyberattacks, disinformation, intimidation, and other destabilizing activities such as interference in domestic processes. The negative repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are felt across many regions, including the Western Balkans, and some of our partners are being exposed to a greater risk of malign pressure and coercion.
NATO has a long track-record of promoting peace and stability in the Western Balkans. Our new Strategic Concept approved at the NATO Summit in Madrid last June reaffirms the strategic importance of the region for the Alliance. This is attested by our KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and by the activities of our offices in Sarajevo and Belgrade.
Our cooperation with the European Union and other like-minded partners remains essential and we will continue to work together to preserve stability, and support reform in the region; because security and stability in the Western Balkans is important for NATO and for peace and stability in Europe.
EWB: What has been the cooperation between Serbia and NATO since the beginning of the war in Ukraine? Has Serbia’s neutral stance affected Serbia-NATO relations?
JC: We have a long-standing partnership with Serbia, since 2006. That partnership continues to evolve in its own merit, in full respect of Serbia’s stated policy of military neutrality and with a good degree of political dialogue and practical cooperation. This is the prism through which NATO will continue to address its relations with Belgrade.
At the same time, we have been consistently clear when it comes to Russia and stability across the Western Balkans region. We urge Russia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, we regularly see Russia doing the opposite. We have seen hacking, disinformation, intimidation, and other destabilizing activities. We fully respect every nation’s sovereign right to choose their own political and security arrangements. We urge Russia to do the same.
EWB: Serbia-NATO cooperation has practically become invisible to the public in 2022 due to the focus on the war in Ukraine. Is public perception about Serbia-NATO relations something that you will discuss with Serbian representatives?
JC: I value open and frank discussions that I always have with my Serbian interlocutors, in which we discuss all aspects of our partnership, including issues that need to be improved, such as the public perception about Serbia-NATO relations. In this respect, it is important to highlight that our partnership – especially the practical cooperation dimension of it – has evolved throughout the years, as a result of Serbia’s sovereign decision. Currently, it is articulated across many domains and it is tailored to Serbia’s specific needs.
We worked together to be better prepared for civil emergences such as floods and forest fires. We are helping Serbia reform its security forces and institutions. NATO trains Serbian soldiers for peacekeeping missions and we have invested millions of euros to help Serbia destroy hundreds of tons of obsolete ammunition.
We also have long-standing scientific cooperation with Serbia, through our Science for Peace and Security Programme, including in areas such as energy and environmental security, counter-terrorism and cyber-defence. Furthermore, Serbia and NATO worked together to train Iraqi military medics.
The benefits of the NATO-Serbia cooperation are numerous. We are always open to engage with the Serbian population and discuss the state of play of our important partnership and the prospects for its further development. Public engagements represent a very important component of NATO-Serbia relations. In this respect, our Military Liaison Office in Belgrade led by the Italian Brigadier General Giampiero Romano plays a key role.
EWB: How do you see the current security situation in Kosovo, considering the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of Serbs from Kosovo’s institutions? Does KFOR has the capacity to guarantee security in the North?
JC: The NATO-led KFOR mission is the most tangible demonstration of NATO’s longstanding commitment to lasting security in Kosovo and across the Western Balkans, Our KFOR mission is fully capable to continue implementing its UN mandate, based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo. KFOR contributes to security in Kosovo with more than 3,700 troops contributed from 27 countries – including NATO Allies and partners.
Our KFOR troops are fully prepared to intervene if stability, security and freedom of movement are jeopardized – in line with the mentioned UN mandate. Since last October, KFOR has reinforced its presence in northern Kosovo, including with additional troops and patrols. So our commitment to KFOR and its mandate is steadfast. The KFOR Commander remains in close contact with his main interlocutors, including the representatives of the Institutions in Kosovo and of the Kosovo Security Organizations, the Serbian Armed Forces General Staff, as well as the EU-led Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and the international community.
What is now important is that all sides demonstrate a strong commitment and political will to finding a sustainable political solution through dialogue. This is key to lasting security in Kosovo and to stability across the region. NATO fully supports the ongoing efforts within the EU-facilitated dialogue for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. I have conveyed this message to all my interlocutors in Belgrade.
EWB: In previous years, there has been a lot of speculation about reducing the size of KFOR. Are there any talks about changes in the number of personnel?
JC: Our commitment to KFOR is steadfast. Any changes to our force posture remain conditions-based and not calendar-driven; and they are subject to a decision by the North Atlantic Council – NATO’s decision-making body – by unanimous vote.
EWB: After last year’s NATO Summit in Madrid, the Declaration explicitly mentions the security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What do you consider to be the main security challenges in the country?
JC: Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of our long-standing partners, having joined the Partnership for Peace programme in 2006. Our commitment to this partnership is steadfast, as also reaffirmed during the mentioned NATO Summit in Madrid last June and at the meetings of NATO Defence Ministers and NATO Foreign Ministers, last October and November, respectively. This point has been further reinforced during this week’s meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Brussels.
We strongly support the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and we remain committed to its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, for the benefit of all in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last year’s adoption of the Reform Programmes by the Council of Ministers is a very important step in the consolidation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s relations with NATO and in the strengthening of our partnership.
We are stepping up our political and practical support to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in line with the decision taken by NATO Heads of State and Government at the Madrid summit. For instance, by helping Bosnia and Herzegovina in the modernization of its defence and security structures. We could also enhance our cooperation on the fight against small arms and light weapons trafficking, counter-terrorism, crisis management and cyber security. We intend to reinforce our Headquarters in Sarajevo with more personnel and could provide more resources to support expert team visits to the country and counter-disinformation efforts.
EWB: Could we expect progress in NATO membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the near future?
JC: Ultimately, the pace and scope of the partnership cooperation between NATO and Bosnia and Herzegovina will continue to rest on the sovereign decision by the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.