Lessons from the Kosovo war: no time for European Complacency

The Kosovo war of 25 years ago serves as a reminder that frozen conflicts and bilateral disputes cannot be swept under the rug for long. In the current geopolitical environment, they will blow up in Europe’s face.


Teaser Image Caption
Ibrahim Rugova's statue, in front of the Catholic Cathedral 'Nëna Terezë' in Prishtina

Western Europe is currently in the midst of its longest-ever period of peace in history. Several generations of Europeans were born and raised in peacetime under the umbrella of NATO and the EU, which has made wars in Europe seem unlikely and irrational – like things that happen in faraway, fragile places. This has unfortunately made the West dangerously complacent and unprepared to predict, prevent and respond to wars. 


This is a matter of concern, as nearby in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, peace and order seems to be on shaky ground. Even in regions often seen as unstable or mired in ethnic strife, broader wars, until recently, seemed an unlikely outcome – until they actually erupted. 

Two years ago, in the days preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the mood in Kyiv was that of disbelief, despite the fact that Russia had already annexed Crimea in 2014 and US intelligence had picked up the presence of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and heavy weapons lining up across the border. A little more than three years ago, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who have now become refugees in Armenia proper, were firmly in control of this territory, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan’s. Only a few months ago, Israel lived under the illusion that its heavily walled border with Gaza was so impenetrable, and Hamas so incapable, that it did not bother to deploy sufficient troops to protect it.  

The way in which these seemingly stable situations hid deep internal fragilities that erupted in violent conflict seemed eerily familiar to those of us from the Balkans. More than three decades ago, the scale of violence that resulted in the dissolution of Yugoslavia was not expected by most of its citizens, even as the first bullets were being fired. Yet in retrospect, the signals of such dangerous spirals are almost always there for those who want to see them. The West’s misguided actions or inactions from the Yugoslav wars may offer some guidance for how to respond to today’s challenges.


Take, for example, the Kosovo war (1998–1999), which came to international attention, especially after NATO launched an unprecedented aerial bombing campaign against the remnants of Yugoslavia (effectively Serbia) to prevent an ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo had, under the Yugoslav constitution of 1974, been an autonomous entity within Tito’s Yugoslavia, enjoying de facto republic-level status as a constituent entity equal to other republics. When, in the late 1980s, Serbia’s nationalist and hegemonic leader Slobodan Milosevic embarked on a revisionist agenda aiming to subjugate Yugoslavia to Serbian domination, one of his first steps was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy. This step was one of the triggers which sped up secessionist demands in other republics. Serbia responded with violence – first in Slovenia, then Croatia, and then Bosnia and Herzegovina – unleashing war crimes against civilians, and the first internationally recognized genocide on European ground after 1945 in Srebrenica,.     

At the outset of the Yugoslav wars, Kosovo’s Albanians, led by Sakharov Prize winner Ibrahim Rugova, chose an alternative path to the other republics. In 1990, Kosovo declared independence through a referendum and began a decade-long non-violent resistance movement. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who refused to pledge allegiance to Serbia’s government were sacked, in what effectively became an apartheid-type state. A parallel governance system was established by a government in exile, which ran schools in makeshift homes and worked to muster Western support.  

Europe’s approach to Serbia’s aggression in Yugoslavia, much like its reaction to Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, was indifferent and meek. By deciding on arms embargoes on all sides and sending a powerless UN peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, it disproportionately favoured the better-armed Serbs, while imposing ineffective economic and political sanctions on them. Only when the human toll of the genocide in Bosnia became clear, the West – driven largely by the US – pushed back more seriously with military threats, forcing Milosevic to sign the Dayton Peace Agreement, albeit rewarding him with an ethnic entity resulting from genocide. 

The impact of Dayton on Kosovo was severe. The West’s failure to address Kosovo’s plight in parallel with the other Yugoslav wars demonstrated another moment of severe misunderstanding of the region. Most importantly, it delegitimized Rugova’s non-violent resistance among Albanians. Living on the brink of survival, many took up weapons and joined the Kosovo Liberation Army’s insurgency against Serbian police and military targets. Sensing an opportunity to rid Kosovo of its Albanian population and emboldened by earlier Western appeasements, Milosevic responded brutally with mass murder of civilians, which only led to a sturdier armed resistance in Kosovo.  

The West – wary of a new genocide after Bosnia and Rwanda had grabbed the world’s attention – made a last-ditch diplomatic effort at the Rambuillet peace talks to prevent a larger war. Kosovo’s Albanians reluctantly agreed to a deal which formally preserved Yugoslavia’s sovereignty but saw Yugoslav forces replaced by NATO troops. Belgrade rejected this and was duly bombed. In revenge, it expelled more than one million Albanians into neighbouring countries and killed thousands of civilians. 

Joschka Fisher, as he passionately defended the NATO intervention in 1999, declared that: ‘In Germany we learned the lesson of “never again war” but also “never again Auschwitz”’. The latter ended successfully in June of that year, with Serbia’s military defeat and the instalment of a UN administration and NATO peacekeeping force (which is still in place).   


Kosovo’s subsequent declaration of independence in 2008 – the result of a UN-mediated process by Marti Ahtisaari and subject to strong guarantees on ethnic minority protections – was the logical conclusion of the idea that Serbia’s history of rule in Kosovo had left it with no moral or legal right to the territory (Albanians would say that it never had any in the first place). More than a hundred countries, mostly Western ones, shared this view when they recognized Kosovo’s independence. But not Serbia, and – perhaps more importantly – not Russia, which has since prevented Kosovo from joining the UN. Neither did five other EU countries (four of which were members of NATO), which has hampered Kosovo’s membership perspectives in these organizations.  

Kosovo’s struggle for further international recognition has grown in importance over the years as Russia’s power has grown and as its revisionist agenda against the Western security order – manifested directly in Ukraine – has become global in nature. Russia paid particular focus to regions like the Western Balkans, where it had (and continues to have) a keen interest in opening new fronts to distract from the main war effort in Ukraine, and where it finds an allied revanchist and nationalist Serbia equally keen to revise the Western solutions of the 90s in Bosnia and Kosovo.  

As a result of the geopolitical context, over the past few years, Kosovo has returned to the global spotlight after major tensions in its Serbian-majority north, including: attacks against NATO soldiers in May 2023 by Serbian protesters; an armed insurgency by Belgrade-backed extremists in October of the same year; and a massive deployment of Serbian military forces near Kosovo’s borders. 

While NATO (KFOR) continues to provide deterrence against a broader escalation, an EU-facilitated dialogue on the normalization of relations between the countries has been the West’s main political instrument to resolving the dispute for the past decade. While it has managed to resolve some technical issues, like management of border crossings or payment of energy bills, the thorniest political ones remain beyond reach and face a lack of willingness by both sides to implement, despite EU and US insistence that a legally binding verbal agreement has been reached last Spring in Ohrid.

The key contentious issues are especially Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo, which would allow the latter to join international organizations, and the establishment of an association of Serbian-majority municipalities, which would integrate the remaining northern Kosovo Serbs into Kosovo’s governance system. The reason for the collapse in negotiations is that neither side trusts that the West can guarantee the deals, or has any real incentives to offer. 

As a result, the agreements seem to have led to the opposite effect by fuelling an escalation in tensions, as the sides seek to establish new facts on the ground. As a result of this limbo, Kosovo’s north has become arguably the most vulnerable security hotspot in Europe outside of Ukraine. 


Twenty-five years after the war, Kosovo is a much better place – politically, economically and socially – and despite its challenges, may be considered a Western success story of state-building. Yet at the same time, in the context of broader developments in Europe, the underlying fragility caused by the situation in the north and Kosovo’s international limbo make the prospect of conflict not very far-fetched. 

The resolution of the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia should remain a matter of urgency for the EU, and significant US involvement is vital. Constant geopolitical shifts require a transatlantic unity for the EU-facilitated dialogue to move forward, preferably resulting in a legally binding agreement matched by Western guarantees on its full implementation.  

The lesson from the Yugoslav wars and Russia’s decade-long aggression in the immediate neighbourhood – as in Georgia (2008) and in Ukraine (since 2014) – is that the West needs to go all in to address such fragilities before they erupt into wider conflict. To do so, they need to act from a position of strength and not appeasement – as this is the only language that authoritarians like Putin, Milošević and Vučić understand.  

Time is also of the essence. A potential new Trump administration in the US, with a questionable commitment to NATO, would seriously put to test Europe’s ability to defend against an inevitable and broader Russian aggression. In that scenario, the Western Balkans would surely be a primary target.   


The views expressed in this text are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.