Is Serbia about to invade Kosovo?

Is Serbia about to invade Kosovo?
Illustration by Laurel Molly, © All Rights Reserved

A couple of hours after midnight on September 24th, three police vehicles arrived to investigate a couple of trucks without license plates blocking the bridge to the village of Banjska, North Kosovo. What transpired over the next 15 hours is in dispute, but by 17:27 one Kosovar police officer and three Serbian militants lay dead. Video appears to show the troubles beginning when a remotely triggered mine exploded under one of the police vehicles. 30 heavily armed Serbian militants took part in the ambush and subsequent firefight.

The militants fled to the Serbian Orthodox Banjska Monastery, which dates to 1313. (The monastery was the resting place of Serbian King Stefan Milutin, until his body had to be moved following the Battle of Kosovo between the Serbs and the Ottomans in 1389.) Kosovo Special Forces recaptured the monastery by 17:27; however, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo remain high.

After the clash, 8,400 Serbian troops with tanks were positioned near the border with Kosovo. This was the most serious standoff since the end of direct hostilities that led to the deployment of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) to secure the peace in 1999. After direct requests from the US, President Vučić of Serbia appears to have withdrawn 4,000 troops from the region, though this has not been confirmed. The UK sent 600 additional troops to reinforce the KFOR presence in the region.

For the last 634 years, there have been times of relative peace or open conflict, but the region is still in dispute. Was the attack in Banjska the beginning of a Serbian orchestrated attempt to retake North Kosovo, or simply the act of militant separatists with unofficial backing? Will Serbia invade Kosovo, or has the clear response from NATO eliminated the risk of an invasion for the near future?

The Swift Centre's forecasters have provided initial forecasts and analysis about the threat until November 15th, and will follow up with a longer-term assessment in the coming weeks. Forecasts ranged from 1.2% to a high of 5%, with a median of 3.2%.

Though the probability is low, reasons for an invasion cited by one Swift forecaster included “…likely strong support for Serbia from Russia, which would benefit from Nato being distracted with Kosovo” and that “Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić might take a lesson from Azerbaijan's recent rapid offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh that this is how you win these conflicts".

Another forecaster noted:

"It is above the base risk because of the military buildup that has been documented by observers over the past few days. While this is generally a trend that has repeated several times over the past few years (with troop build-up followed by a withdrawal) the pretext of last week’s monastery incident makes the risk slightly higher.”

However, forecasters do not take this military buildup as a blatant sign of oncoming escalation:

“I think Serbia gets curb stomped in an unfunny way if they go to war by NATO, and they know this so aren't going to do anything too serious. With Russia unable to help them in any meaningful way, you would think they are going to be less likely to start something that would end very badly for them.”

The risk of miscalculation is still present, however. What would have happened if all the Serbian paramilitary people in Banjska Monastery had been killed in the Kosovar Special Forces operation to recapture the monastery? This scenario raises the question of whether Serbia's President could have resisted the pressure from the public for retaliation. Although NATO possesses a significant military edge, it is noteworthy that several of its member nations — Romania, Greece, Slovakia, and Spain — have not acknowledged Kosovo's sovereignty. Like Serbia, Romania and Greece are also majority Eastern Orthodox countries. Romania clearly understands the value of NATO, particularly with the war in Ukraine at their borders, but a conflict with Serbia would be like fighting their sibling.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence suggesting that President Vučić might have been privy to the attack in Banjska, and that the attack appears to have been planned within military bases in Serbia. It is this level of risk-taking that causes Swift forecasters to believe the risk of an imminent Serbian invasion exceeds the historical norm.

Illustration by Laurel Molly ©