In the wake of UN Security Council Resolutions 1160 and 1199 of March and September 1998, the international community grappled with how to deal with the atrocities being perpetrated in a little known province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) called Kosovo.  A decade later, Kosovo, an independent state in Europe, has been moved from the front pages above the fold of the global press to the back section of the world’s collective consciousness.

  Belgrade and Moscow, however, have not forgotten Kosovo or the nearly 200,000 ethnic Serbs that live there.   Consequently, it would be imprudent for NATO and the international community to dismiss as empty rhetoric Serbian President Tadic’s recent statement about “absorbing” parts of Kosovo into Serbia.  To put it bluntly, NATO cannot afford a Kosovo winter surprise. 

In large part because of UN intervention, NATO’s military action and its continued close coordination with European institutions that have worked to build a viable civil society, Kosovo is generally viewed as a success story.  NATO’s air campaign, Operation ALLIED FORCE, led by its southern region command, served as the Alliance’s forcible entry mechanism while the multi-national Kosovo Force (KFOR) served (and continues to serve) as a key element of the overall effort that provides a safe and secure environment.  Today, KFOR, a truly multinational force that enjoys the support of 30 nations contributing over 14,000 troops, and the European Union are actively engaged with Kosovo’s government as it wrestles with the many challenges of statehood: a functioning judiciary, the delivery of basic services and perhaps most importantly, security.

In northern Kosovo, guaranteeing a safe and secure environment for ethnic Serbs “north of the river” remains problematic—all the more reason Tadic’s late September pronouncement of his willingness to absorb parts of Kosovo is a potentially ominous sign of things to come.  Clearly, official statements from Serbia’s leadership that intimate a change to the recognized Kosovo borders only serve to increase regional anxiety—especially when such statements are undoubtedly made with Moscow’s tacit approval.  This is not to say that Serbia and/or Russia have plans to change the geography by using military force.  It does, however, make it more difficult for those countries that have not offered official recognition to Kosovo to do so (see “Untying NATO’s Hands: Why the Alliance Needs an Energy Policy.”)  With only an estimated 50 countries offering recognition and an official Serbian request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Kosovo Independence, it appears that the Serb/Russian Team will not go gently into that Kovosar good night. 

With the aforementioned in mind, an eye towards the future and a need to maintain credibility, NATO must take those actions necessary to avoid a winter surprise in Kosovo.  For starters, its Ministers should:     

1.    Make an explicit, strong reaffirmation of the Alliance’s commitment to keep or bolster troop levels in Kosovo, if required.   This is important given NATO Members’ desire to continue to draw down the number of troops in order to redeploy them elsewhere.
2.    Ensure its members agree on the appropriate response to a rekindled Balkan crisis before the crisis erupts.    The Alliance needs to have agreed upon “pre-planned responses”, if required, given its proven inability to react swiftly and meaningfully by either concrete action or a strong, unified statement of condemnation.  

3.    Ensure its response force is exercised for a winter contingency.  In recent history, Allied Joint Force Command Headquarters-Naples has planned and been prepared for the usual spring/summer Kosovo internal uprising.  In the current climate, however, it is only prudent that its response force be exercised and prepared for a winter contingency.  Such an exercise and show of preparedness could serve as a deterrent.

Needless to say, the Alliance and the world remain rightfully focused on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and finding solutions to the current global economic malaise.  But they cannot, however, disregard the potential for conflict in a region where, in recent history, conflict has been a fact of life.  As such, anything short of the above recommended practical planning exposes the Alliance to a further loss of credibility not unlike that suffered in August and September in the wake of Russia’s invasion into Georgia.

James Easaw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.