At arm’s length: NATO juggles conflicts from Ukraine to the Balkans

ROME and WASHINGTON — Without firing a shot, NATO is emerging as a winner from the Ukraine war as Russia’s invading force stumbles and nations clamor to join the Western alliance.

All the while, officials are trying to keep the long view on would-be crises, including those involving China and Europe’s perennial backyard hot spot, the Balkans.

The events since Feb. 24, the beginning of Moscow’s attack on its neighbor, have put the alliance in a peculiar position: determining how to stay out of a conflict, as a collective, even though the outcome is deemed critical for NATO’s goal of a secure Europe.

Throughout the year’s fog of war, NATO leaders have walked that fine line, staying out of the business of lethal military aid for nonmember Ukraine, and playing to their strength as a forum for coordination instead. The alliance has, however, delivered communications and jamming equipment.

“[Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg has made it clear that NATO is not a party to this conflict and will not become a party to this conflict,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “It’s still a meaningful vehicle for planning and discussion, and ensuring the defense of the European continent.”

Even with Ukraine doing the shooting, the benefits of a weakened Russia have not been lost on the alliance. According to one NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing internal deliberations, there is an acknowledgment in Brussels that members can choose to accept more risk when they reach deep into their arsenals to scrounge up equipment for Ukraine previously retained for self-defense.

The reliance on mutual defense in case of war, the logic goes, can help absorb individual readiness shortfalls.

The principle also applies to prospective members like Sweden, whose leaders had the chance to “look under the hood” of the alliance, as Gen. Micael Bydén, the country’s top commander, said. Sweden and Finland are going through the accession process to join NATO, with only the approvals of Hungary and Turkey remaining.

“We are more ready to take more risks today with our own inventory because the war is being fought in Ukraine,” Bydén said Nov. 17 at an event in Washington organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank.

As winter sets in, Western officials expect the drop in temperature to bring a lull in fighting. Whether that could lead to negotiations between Ukraine and Russia was still an elusive question in November.

A woman stands in an apartment, damaged by a Russian missile strike, in a Ukranian village on March 28, 2022. (Natolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman stands in an apartment, damaged by a Russian missile strike, in a Ukranian village on March 28, 2022. (Natolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

On the ground, a more concrete conundrum is beginning to present itself: Ukraine and its backers are running out of ammunition.

Several Western officials recently cited a rough statistic for artillery rounds, ascribed to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that goes something like this: Ukrainian guns are firing in one week what the West can produce in a month.

“There is a quite active debate right now about if the defense industry is ready to step up,” Bydén said.

The looming shortage is on track to force practical considerations into how the war progresses. “This is a coming discussion: how far and how long are we able to sustain the support,” Bydén said.

Even outside of Ukraine, ammunition inventories are a key element of NATO defense plans. Some alliance officials, including Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, who chairs NATO’s Military Committee, have begun to ask how significant spending increases, implemented after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, have failed to translate into sufficient stockpiles.

And Bydén argued companies should take “more risk” when it comes to weapons stockpiling, knowing governments will ultimately spend the money anyway.

Balkan interference

Meanwhile, far from Ukrainian battlefields, the winds of war have reached NATO’s Balkan backyard, where Russian-backed efforts to destabilize the area are proving successful and threaten to rekindle conflict in a region still recovering from its own war three decades ago.

“NATO is doing well in the region but now faces increasing Russian activity specifically designed to put a stop to it,” said Vesko Garčević, a former Montenegrin ambassador to NATO and now a professor of international relations at Boston University.

Things looked good for the alliance earlier this year as regional members Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia shrugged off the Russian sympathies of some local politicians in order to back sanctions on Moscow.

Memories are still fresh of the 1990s ethnic conflict that tore apart today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina and spurred ethnic Serbian forces to besiege its capital, Sarajevo.

“The Balkans and Bosnia-Herzegovina [have] had firsthand experience of what is happening in Ukraine, and this war has reiterated the importance of NATO integration for Sarajevo,” said Ismet Fatih Čančar, a recent fellow with NATO Defense College’s Partnership for Peace program.

In neighboring Serbia, by contrast, politicians have refused to join NATO or sanction Moscow; they are instead seeking ever closer ties with Russia, citing their shared Slav heritage and orthodox faith.

While Sarajevo recalls the genocide carried out by Serbian-backed commanders, Serbians remember the 1999 bombing of their capital Belgrade by NATO jets.

An elderly man gestures as he passes by a body draped in a blanket in front of a destroyed house in Cacak, southwest of Belgrade, on May 10, 1999. NATO had launched an air raid on Cacak. (Igor Jovanov/AFP via Getty Images)
An elderly man gestures as he passes by a body draped in a blanket in front of a destroyed house in Cacak, southwest of Belgrade, on May 10, 1999. NATO had launched an air raid on Cacak. (Igor Jovanov/AFP via Getty Images)

In September, Serbia signed a deal with Russia to start mutual “consultations” on foreign policy, while defense cooperation is already tight. Serbia has procured MiG jets, Pantsir-S1 air defense systems and tanks from Russia, which has opened an office inside the Serbian Defence Ministry.

In a move that may worry Russia but will certainly vex NATO officials, Serbia also went shopping in China, becoming the first European buyer this year of the FK-3 surface-to-air missile system and, previously, China’s CH-92A drone.

Garčević said Serbia saw Russia stake a claim to a “greater Russia” by invading Ukraine. That has made Serbian leaders more confident about asserting their own claims to areas outside its borders inhabited by Serbs.

“Serbia has become more vocal about this, seeing a chance to copy Russia’s posture,” he said.

The first to feel the effect is next-door neighbor Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a carefully balanced power-sharing agreement between ethnic communities put in place after the Balkan wars is now under threat; the Serb-majority republic, known as the Republika Srpska and backed by Serbia, is threatening to secede.

Russia is also taking a role, training the republic’s police force. And in September, ahead of a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-run area, Milorad Dodik, blamed the West for provoking the attack on Ukraine.

The European Union’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina has increased its presence to more than 1,000 troops, but Čančar doubted that will make a difference. “They [the EU] know that the number of peacekeeping forces would not be enough if there is a problem,” he said.

The struggle between Russia and the West in the country is also economic. While the EU loans cash to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia offers discounted gas.

“The Ukraine war has encouraged calls in [the Republika Srpska] for secession and the dismantling of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while the Russian ambassador has said Bosnia can look at the example of Ukraine if it chooses to join NATO,” Čančar said. “Russia is using the Republika Srpska and Serbia to destabilize the Balkans. A crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the support of Russia, could easily spill over into Montenegro, Kosovo or North Macedonia.”

Garčević said Russia will likely stop short of encouraging an actual secession, thus risking more bloodshed in the region.

“It’s a trump card they won’t use, but they will try to keep the country weak and keep NATO busy. It’s like in the Caucasus and Moldova. Russia likes frozen conflicts,” he said.

A brewing row between Serbia and its former province Kosovo is meanwhile looking anything but frozen.

Serbia tried to crush a separatist movement by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999, prompting the NATO bombing of Belgrade and producing an independent Kosovo recognized by the U.S. and most of Europe, but not by Russia nor China.

Now, a seemingly petty row over Kosovo’s decision to stop its Serbian residents using Serbia-issued car license plates threatens to trigger violence. That is after Serbian politicians, judges and 500 police officers in a Serbian-populated region of Kosovo walked off the job in protest.

Kosovo Serbs wave Serbian flags during a protest in the Serb predominant part of Mitrovica on Nov. 6, 2022. Serbs in northern Kosovo were protesting against a government order that all citizens must use car license plates issued by Kosovo authorities. (Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images)
Kosovo Serbs wave Serbian flags during a protest in the Serb predominant part of Mitrovica on Nov. 6, 2022. Serbs in northern Kosovo were protesting against a government order that all citizens must use car license plates issued by Kosovo authorities. (Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images)

In Montenegro — Serbia’s partner in a federation until 2006 when Montenegro declared independence — many believe Russia was behind a failed coup in 2016 aimed at stopping the country from joining NATO.

Despite Montenegro successfully joining the alliance a year later, pro-Russian and pro-Western politicians continue to wrangle over power. In September, Montenegro expelled six Russian diplomats, while pro-Western Defence Minister Rasko Konjevic blamed Russia for a massive cyberattack on the country.

A month later, his opponents in Parliament voted to oust him. Asked by Defense News if he held Russia responsible for his sacking, he said: “I leave it to you to judge who would benefit from my removal.”

“It is obvious that the Russian Federation does not want stability in the Western Balkans, and this has been evident since 2016 and after Montenegro’s accession to NATO in 2017,” he added. “Since it failed to prevent Montenegro from joining, Russia has adopted another strategy, which is destabilization of the alliance through its proxies inside NATO.”