Twenty years after the war that made its contested independence possible, Kosovo is in a precarious position. While it is recognized as a sovereign state by more than 100 countries, Serbia refuses to recognize its independence. With strong Russian support for Serbia, as evidenced by the warm welcome Vladimir Putin received in Belgrade in January 2019, Kosovo’s effective independence is never guaranteed. Indeed, in December of 2018, Serbia responded to the Kosovar parliament’s decision to begin forming an army with threats of military action. Despite these tensions, those wishing for a truly independent Kosovo can find a reason for hope in another European country that once lay at the heart of a potential East-West conflict: Germany. The similarities between Germany twenty years after World War II and Kosovo now help demonstrate that NATO’s use of force and deployment of peacekeepers have been worthwhile and that the West should not abandon Kosovo, lest it fall under Putin’s control.
NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo was the second time the alliance went to war to halt ethnic massacres in the Balkans. When Bosniaks declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, Bosnian Serbs, supported by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, responded not only with military force, but with genocide, something not seen in Europe since World War II. For three years, the alliance stood by while the atrocities took place in its backyard. Only after 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995 did NATO finally launch a military intervention against Serb troops. By the time a peace deal was reached, the death toll had passed 100,000.
The Kosovo intervention, by contrast, was a humanitarian triumph. In 1998, in response to the Kosovo Liberation Army’s armed campaign for independence from Yugoslavia, Milosevic’s Serb forces began targeting ethnic Albanian civilians as well as KLA militants. In March 1999, after the Serbs rejected a settlement brokered by the West and accepted by Kosovo Albanians, NATO launched a 78-day campaign of airstrikes. The intervention halted Serb aggression, and Milosevic capitulated to NATO demands that he withdraw his troops from Kosovo. The death toll of 13,000, while tragic, pales in comparison to that in Bosnia. Thanks to NATO’s intervention and deployment of peacekeepers, Kosovo was confident enough in its future to declare independence from Serbia in 2008.
Twenty years after World War II, Germany’s situation resembled that of Kosovo today in many ways. The country was divided between a communist East and a democratic West. Each side hosted large foreign armies as it recovered from a far more devastating war – with far more shocking atrocities – than Kosovo experienced. East and West Germany did not even recognize each other diplomatically until 27 years after the end of the war.
Many events between 1945 and 1991, some of which took place in Germany, could have turned the Cold War hot. During the Berlin Airlift, American and British military planes flew over Soviet-occupied East Germany to bring food and fuel to West Berlin after the Soviets blocked the city’s land entrances. In 1961, tensions over the construction of the Berlin Wall brought American and Soviet tanks dangerously close to each other. West Germany also experienced its share of domestic upheaval and political violence: in the 1970s the ultra-leftist Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof gang) carried out bombings, bank robberies, and the assassinations of powerful political and economic figures.
By contrast, Kosovo today seems relatively calm. There are currently 4,000 NATO peacekeepers in the country, but that is down from 50,000 when the Kosovo Force (KFOR) first deployed twenty years ago. The number of U.S. military personnel in Germany peaked at more than 274,000 in 1962. And the end of the Cold War has not meant the end of the U.S. presence; in 2016 there were more than 34,000 American troops in Germany. While there have been occasional ethnic clashes in Kosovo in the past two decades, the country has not experienced a string of terrorist attacks like those unleashed by the Baader-Meinhof gang – some of whose members fled to East Germany and were protected by the Stasi, East Germany’s infamous secret police.
At a time when Western publics are broadly skeptical of long-term military deployments like that in Afghanistan, Kosovo provides a counterargument and an example of the efficacy of intervention and sustained political and military engagement. At a time when Putin has invaded and occupied Crimea, seized Ukrainian naval vessels, and given support to right-wing militant movements across the West, it is important that NATO not let Kosovo fall under his control. Solidarity among NATO members was vital to protecting West Germany and the rest of Western Europe from Soviet attack, and to allowing Eastern Europe to eventually break free from communism. That same solidarity is now vital to keep Kosovo free, and to push back against Putin’s attempts to undo the Soviet loss of the Cold War.