Italy may have helped avert a new crisis between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, but the chance of a flare-up — with the possible involvement of NATO troops — remains.
The Italian ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense visited the two capitals on November 22 in an unannounced joint ministerial visit to defuse tensions over car license plates, a seemingly innocuous issue that has brought the neighbors to the brink of armed conflict.
The day after, the European Union’s (EU) high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrel, announced that the two countries had reached an agreement on implementing “measures to avoid further escalation and to fully concentrate on the proposal on normalization of their relations.” Whilst brokered by the EU, this agreement was the result of a multilateral initiative, with both Italy and the US playing a key part. The deal essentially freezes in place the old car registration system.
This successful mediation has, not for the first time, reduced the risks of a full-blown crisis. However, as exchanges of gunfire in the north Kosovan town of Mitrovica clearly show, the situation in the area remains volatile and the risk of escalation is high, with the EU saying it’s ready to reinforce its EULEX policing mission if needed. After a series of armed assaults against EU and Kosovan police personnel, the Kosovan authorities’ decision to postpone April administrative elections has been praised by several EU countries.
Why does Italy care? Partly because the Western Balkans are close and what happens there can have knock-on effects, and partly because Italy has long been committed to stabilizing the region. Italian troops arrived with the NATO force in 1999 and have been there ever since. The current Italian contingent is the largest within K-FOR at more than 700 troops, Italian General Angelo Michele Ristuccia is its commander, becoming the 13th Italian commander, and the country also contributes Carabinieri. If fighting did become serious, Italians would immediately be on the frontline.
The government, therefore, understands the risks. Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who is well acquainted with the intricacies of regional diplomacy and is personally known to many key figures in the region from his years in Brussels, kept the pressure on both Belgrade and Pristina by stressing the urgency of a “full normalization” during a subsequent phone call with the two sides. Italy’s diplomatic activism is significant, coming after just a month after the new government’s inception, and underlines the desire for a more active foreign policy with allies and regional states alike.
Speaking after the recent EU-Western Balkans meeting in Tirana, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni highlighted both the region’s relevance for Italy’s foreign policy and the untapped potential that deeper economic cooperation could offer for both shores of the Adriatic sea.
Historically, relations between Italy and the Balkans have rarely been quiet, and insecurity close to its borders would have important economic repercussions for Italy – trade relations with Balkan states are estimated at €16bn ($17bn) and growing, while presenting obvious political problems.
There are also concerns too about the influence of Russia and China, which are eager to expand their influence in the Western Balkans, often at the expense of European countries.
The Kremlin retains substantial sway through consolidated cultural and religious ties with Slavic and orthodox Christian communities — especially in Serbia, where it fuels anti-Western sentiment and capitalizes on the Serbs’ resentment at the 1999 NATO intervention that prompted the creation of Kosovo as an independent state.
For example, Vladimir Putin hosted Milorad Dodik, the separatist leader of the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two federal regions in September, confirming the Kremlin’s aspiration to shape local politics by propping up sympathetic leaders and even training controversial paramilitary formations. Russia’s strategy also includes more consequential tools such as energy diplomacy. In May, Serbia reached an agreement on a three-year gas supply with Russia’s Gazprom. The company is also the major shareholder in Serbia’s national oil company NIS, and energy interests are often used as gate openers for political influence.
Some Serbian politicians even claimed that ties with Russia’s mercenary company Wagner might help the country in an eventual war with Kosovo, at least according to the Serbian ultranationalist Damjan Knezevic after visiting the new high-rise headquarters of the group in Russia.
Nevertheless, Russia has had to readjust its approach in the Balkans after its expanded war of aggression against Ukraine. The impact of unprecedented Western sanctions against Russian interests in Europe and elsewhere encouraged it to deploy tried and tested hybrid approaches aimed at stoking ethnoreligious tensions, spreading disinformation against the EU and NATO, and exploiting political vulnerabilities to weaken the West. This non-linear, opportunistic strategy seeks to destabilize the region and disrupt the EU integration process, of which Italy is one of the most enthusiastic supporters.
While Russia stokes instability, China fears it. Tensions and insecurity hamper its favored modus operandi, mostly based on a lower-profile policy of economic cooperation, loans, and infrastructure investment. In recent years, China has made significant inroads in the region, in particular in Serbia and Montenegro, pouring both private and state money into logistics and infrastructure megaprojects as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Chinese investments in 136 projects across the region have totaled over €32bn since 2009. At the same time, China has launched a massive information campaign to promote its image and reputation, achieving the best results in countries like Serbia and North Macedonia, where its economic influence was already significant. Perhaps more worryingly, China is also extending its military influence through weapons sales. It is now a key weapons supplier for Serbia, selling CH-92A combat drones in 2020 and, more recently, the FK-3 medium-range air defense system.
Against this backdrop, the EU has recently stepped-up efforts to strengthen cooperation with the Western Balkan states, including Serbia, and in the latest official summit with the six countries in Tirana, EU leaders reaffirmed “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans”, promising an acceleration of the accession process. For its part, Italy can use its diplomatic credentials and economic leverage to support this with ground-level initiatives to assist state reforms and promote the rule of law.
The last thing Italy wants, and the last thing the Western Balkans needs, is a new crisis. Quite apart from the consequences for the peoples of the region, leaving the area free for malign Russian activities is dangerous. An upsurge of violence could distract the West at a time when it is focused on support for Ukraine. While Italy’s work to prevent this is critical, the country has to remain closely focused on calming tensions.
Federico Borsari is a Leonardo Fellow at the Center for European Political Analysis (CEPA), NATO 2030 Global Fellow, and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His main research interests include security and defense dynamics, transatlantic security relations, and the impact of new technologies on warfare.
Dario Cristiani is a resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, based in Washington, D.C., working on Italian foreign policy, the Mediterranean, and global politics.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.