In June, two international military exercises in the Balkans involving NATO members were completed: Platinum Wolf 23 and Defender 23. While both of them were a part of regular activities of the Alliance in the region, the participation of Serbia in the former and the interruption of participation of Kosovo in the latter was interpreted as a sign of their changing relationship with NATO and, more broadly, the West.
Serbia, which has continued to maintain strong ties with China and Russia, refusing to impose sanctions on the latter following the escalation of its war in Ukraine, terminated its moratorium on participation in military exercises in order to take part in the Platinum Wolf 23, making one of the rare open pro-Western moves in recent years and raising the question of whether a more significant foreign policy shift should be expected.
On the other hand, Kosovo, which has since its declaration of independence in 2008 been the most pro-Western country in the region, has been excluded from the final phase of the Defender 23 exercise as a form of sanctions for the actions of its government,. As the tensions in the Serb-populated North of Kosovo once again escalated at the end of May, the Western allies put the bulk of the responsibility on the Government of Albin Kurti, highlighting the continuous shaky relationship with the current Kosovo authorities.
Platinum Wolf 23 – termination of the moratorium on Serbia’s participation in military exercises
On 27 June, the multinational military exercise Platinum Wolf 23, in which soldiers of the Serbian Armed Forces took part together with the members of the armed forces from nine other countries, 8 of which are NATO members, ended. The exercise took place over 12 days at the “Jug” base and the “Borovac” training ground in the vicinity of Bujanovac (Serbia).
Serbia has been engaged in the realization of several types of multinational exercises from the Platinum series – Platinum Lion, Platinum Eagle, and Platinum Wolf. Since 2014, the military exercise Platinum Wolf has been organized in Serbia in May or June. From the very beginning, the United States of America has been a participant, and in 2016 the USA started participating in the preparation of the military exercise itself. In addition, members of NATO, including those from the Balkan region, regularly participated in the previous 7 cycles of the Platinum Wolf, the last of which was held in June 2021.
Initially, the announcement of Serbia’s re-participation in the Platinum Wolf exercise for 2023 caused a lot of public attention. At the beginning of April, the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Serbia confirmed this information. The decision was made after a period in which Serbia had a moratorium on the holding of all military exercises with foreign partners from both the West and the East, introduced several days after the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. On 27 February 2022, the Government of Serbia adopted a Conclusion that foresees the suspension of all military activities with foreign partners.
Although it was not time-bound, after a year of implementation, the moratorium on the engagement of the Serbian Armed Forces in multinational exercises and missions was terminated. The Ministry of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff explained that, however, from a formal point of view, participation in Platinum Wolf 23 is only an exception to the existing moratorium.
At the current geopolitical moment, the return of Serbia to the exercise Platinum Wolf 23, along with a series of steps in improving military cooperation with the United States of America in the past months, such as joint participation in the military mission in Sinai, might suggest the intentions of the Serbian leadership to further strengthen a connection with the USA. Nevertheless, greater domestic media coverage and interest in the exercise were absent, which shows that the government was ready to improve its cooperation with the West only to a certain extent. Additionally, State Secretary in the Ministry of Defense Nemanja Starović stated that Serbia remains committed to political independence and military neutrality and that he would “avoid” interpretations that Serbia had chosen to align with the West.
Defender 23 in the Balkans marked by the suspension of Kosovo Security Forces
A few days earlier, on June 23, the much broader multinational military exercise Defender 23 concluded. Defender 23 (Dynamic Employment of Forces to Europe for NATO Deterrence and Enhanced Readiness 2023) is an exercise planned since 2021, conducted by the US Command for Europe and Africa, in which NATO member states and partner countries participate. A total of 9.000 US troops and 17.000 members of armed forces from 25 NATO countries or those considered partners by the US are engaged in exercises designed to demonstrate the possibility of rapid deployment of US combat forces to Europe and joint deterrence of potential threats and readiness to defend Europe in case of aggression.
Immediate Response, a part of Defender 23, was conducted from May 22 to June 2 in the Balkans. It attracted significant public attention since it is the largest exercise related to NATO frameworks in the Balkans in the previous period. 2.800 American and 7.000 soldiers of multinational forces, which included Kosovo Security Forces, participated. Kosovo was also among the hosts, with the activities taking place in locations around Gjakova (Đakovica).
The exercise, however, was marked by the suspension of participation of the Kosovo Security Forces. On May 30, at a press conference in Pristina, US Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier announced that Kosovo’s participation ended earlier than originally planned. KSF activities within the Immediate Response were interrupted in the final phase, when only a larger event remained in the form of an open-door day.
In the press conference, Ambassador Hovenier made it clear that the cancellation was connected with the incidents that took place on the previous day, when the new Albanian mayors of the Serb-majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo entered the municipal buildings with the help of the Kosovo Police, despite the resistance of the local Serb residents. The United States and the European Union made it clear that they considered the government of Albin Kurti responsible for the deterioration of the situation.
“Today there was no activity for ‘Defender Europe ’23’ and there won’t be. For Kosovo, those exercises have ended,” said Hovenier, adding that the US has asked the Prime Minister Kurti to take steps towards reducing tensions in the north.
“He has not responded to these requests. We are analyzing what our next actions will be”, Ambassador added.
The termination of participation of Kosovo security forces turned out to be only one of the several sanctions that the EU, with the support of the US, imposed on Kosovo in the following weeks. The measures include suspension of visits by Kosovo officials to the EU and a suspension of a large part of EU economic aid. The measures would not be lifted until Kosovo takes steps to deescalate the situation, which includes the withdrawal of special police forces and the announcement of new elections.
Both military exercises that ended in June in the Balkan region – Platinum Wolf 23 and Defender 23 – went beyond the scope of purely standard military cooperation due to the interest they generated and the external events that marked them. While in Serbia, the supposed pro-Western move made by the government was downplayed by the officials, it was preceded by the announcement that it had also allowed ammunition shipment to Ukraine, indicating traces of a westward pivot. In Kosovo, on the other hand, the current deterioration of relations with the West is without strong precedents. Whether both trends turn out to be lasting remains to be seen.