Wagner mercenaries helping Serbia prepare potential attack on our nation, Kosovan president warns
Originally published by the Telegraph on February 11, 2023
Serbia is preparing for a potential attack to grab Kosovan territory, president Vjosa Osmani warns | CREDIT: Heathcliff O'Malley
Mercenaries from Russia's notorious Wagner Group are working with Serbian paramilitaries to smuggle weapons and unmarked military uniforms into Kosovo, the country's president warned on Friday.
The secret operation is designed to lay the groundwork for a potential hybrid attack by Serbia to grab Kosovan territory, Vjosa Osmani claimed in an interview with The Telegraph.
The alleged preparations by Serbia bear parallels to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when Russian soldiers wearing uniforms stripped of any insignia, dubbed “little green men”, prepared the way for the peninsula’s secession from Moscow.
“They bring in weapons and uniforms but they are not formally part of the Serbian army. Serbia wants to achieve its aims without it being called a military operation,” Ms Osmani told The Telegraph in the presidential office in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.
The Serb objective is to “prepare situations for a possible annexation - not through a traditional military operation but through a hybrid sort of attack”.
The border between Kosovo and Serbia, one of the most incendiary fault lines in the Balkans, has been wracked by tensions for months, initially sparked by a dispute over driving licences.
Ethnic Serbs, who make up the majority of northern Kosovo’s population, were furious that they were ordered to ditch their Serbian-issued licences and number plates and adopt those issued by Kosovo authorities.
Road blocks and barricades were erected by ethnic Serbs on roads across the north and shots were fired between police and protesters.
The crisis grew so bad in December that president Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, who does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, threatened to send Serbian troops into northern Kosovo.
Kosovo’s president, Ms Osmani, claimed that Belgrade is continuing to stoke tensions in the region, in league with Russia’s Wagner Group, which recently began advertising for Serbian recruits for the Ukraine war.
The covert strategy to smuggle arms for a suspected annexation has been taking place for at least six months, Ms Osmani said. The intention is “precisely” the same as the one used by Vladimir Putin in Crimea nine years ago, she claimed.
“If you look at what Putin did in 2014 it is a complete copy cat, it is the same playbook. Initially, he instrumentalised Russians who lived there, then he was creating all kinds of false flag operations and then he sent in these paramilitary groups.
“There is clear evidence that Serb paramilitary groups have been planning and organising this (with Wagner).
How many were at the border or inside (Kosovo territory), that’s an issue that is still being investigated.”
The northern, Serb controlled district of Mitrovica, adorned with Serbian flags and nationalist graffiti CREDIT: Heathcliff O'Malley
Their intentions were clearly aggressive, she said. “They build trenches and military-style barricades. The kind they could use to fight.”
Serbia has denied that mercenaries from the Wagner Group have had any role in the standoff with Kosovo.
Many Balkan experts are skeptical that Serbia would dare try to annex northern Kosovo because it would bring them into a confrontation with the Nato-led KFOR or Kosovo Force, which includes American and British soldiers.
“For as long as KFOR is based in Kosovo I don't think Serbia will take military action,” said Helena Ivanov, a Belgrade-based Balkans expert with the Henry Jackson Society think tank.
“Serbia is not going to enter a war with Nato. It did that once and it lost. It's not going to do it again. KFOR’s presence is a deterrent for both sides, not to over escalate.”
But President Osmani recalled the widespread scepticism among world leaders early last February when it looked like Russia might invade Ukraine.
“Two or three days before the invasion of Ukraine, I was listening to so many world leaders saying ‘Putin is not that stupid, he’s not going to do that’. We hear that now about Vucic – ‘he’s not that stupid, he’s not going to do it'.”
Just because KFOR is in Kosovo “doesn’t mean that Vucic would never attempt it. I’m not saying he will but we always need to be ready to prevent such a scenario,” she said.
An hour’s drive north of Pristina, in the part of Kosovo dominated by ethnic Serbs, the influence of Serbia and Russia is clear to see.
In the town of Mitrovica, which is divided by a river into an ethnic Serb north and an ethnic Albanian south, Serbian flags flutter in the streets. Shops prefer to take the Serbian dinar instead of the euro, which is the currency in the rest of Kosovo.
There are murals proclaiming that Kosovo is forever a part of Serbia and muscular statues of nationalist heroes.
The letter Z – the symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – has been spray painted on a door along with the words “No Surrender”. A few doors down, someone has scrawled “Nato go home” on a wall.
A few days ago, the word "Wagner" was sprayed onto the walls of a school in the northern, ethnically Serb part of the city. The Kosovo police denounced it as “incitement of hatred and inter-ethnic division”.
The bridge that divides the two halves of the city is patrolled by Italian Carabinieri police, who have been deployed to Kosovo for years.
“For now it’s calm but you can feel the tension in the air. It can change from one day to the next,” said a Carabinieri officer, as stray dogs dozed in the winter sunshine and flocks of pigeons pecked at crumbs on the bridge over the Ibar river.
Beneath the bridge, on the ethnic Albanian side of the river, there was more graffiti, including “F*** Serbia” and a two-headed Albanian eagle painted in black.
On a two-line highway that leads from Mitrovica north to the border with Serbia, there is a huge billboard which declares Vladimir Putin, as well as President Vucic of Serbia and the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, honorary citizens of this part of Kosovo.
A banner strung across a main road proclaims “This is Serbia”.
The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, which has dragged on since Kosovo sustained 13,000 deaths in a brutal war of independence in 1998-1999, may seem like another remote blood feud in the Balkans.
But it has far wider implications and is evidence of Russia using Serbia as a proxy to destabilize the Balkans, to prevent countries from moving towards EU and Nato membership and to distract the West from the war in Ukraine.
“The Russian interest is to use the western Balkans, through Serbia as a Trojan horse, to attack values-based systems such as Nato and the EU,” said President Osmani in Pristina, where streets are named after Bill Clinton and George W Bush in thanks for American help in securing Kosovo’s independence.
“The more security tensions they create, the less are our chances to join the EU. Sometimes they do it in Montenegro, sometimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, sometimes in Kosovo, and they have created problems in North Macedonia as well.”
She accused Serbia of viewing Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina as “temporary countries” which Belgrade wants to reabsorb.
Serbia, for its part, accuses the Pristina government of failing to adhere to a 2013 agreement to grant greater autonomy to the ethnic Serb north of Kosovo.
Pro Putin billboard CREDIT: Heathcliff O'Malley
Malign meddling and propaganda efforts by the Russians have only increased since the invasion of Ukraine, President Osmani said.
“Through Serbia, they want to create other centres of conflict so that Western democracies would have to deal with a lot of crises at the same time rather than have all of their focus on Ukraine.”
Ms Osmani, who at 40 is the youngest head of state in Europe, has bitter personal experience of the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
As a 16-year-old forced to flee Mitrovica in 1999, a Serbian soldier jammed the barrel of his AK-47 assault rifle into her mouth.
“I was pleading with them not to shoot my dad. The soldier was trying to shut me up. It was hell. Thousands of us were forced to walk to Albania. People were raped and murdered.”
While Kosovo is calm for now, the heavy trucks and lorries that were used to create road blocks in the north are still parked by the side of highways, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
Even so, some ethnic Albanians are doubtful that Serbia would ever contemplate military action.
“There is already a big conflict in eastern Europe and the international community certainly won’t allow a second one to develop. And if the Serbs did attack, how long do you think they would last against Nato?” said one ethnic Albanian in Mitrovica.
A Kosovan Serb petrol station adorned with pro Putin imagery CREDIT: Heathcliff O'Malley
A Serb attempt to annex northern Kosovo could unleash chaos in the rest of the Balkans, where several nations are unhappy with their current frontiers.
“If we start changing borders here, everyone in the Balkans will want border changes. It would be a big mess,” said Ismail Latifi, 56, an ethnic Albanian emigre who was visiting Mitrovica from his home in Vancouver. Standing in the shadow of a newly-built mosque with two slender minarets, his friend Behxhet Jashanica said Nato was the guarantor of Kosovo’s stability.
“But if KFOR left Kosovo, Serbia would move in within hours. And the Russians would help them.”
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