International Military Cooperation

In 2023, even for non-NATO members like Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO dominated as a partner of Western Balkan countries regarding international military cooperation. Even Serbia, a country which proclaimed military neutrality and conducts a foreign policy of balancing between great powers, has the most dynamic security cooperation with NATO and the US.

Multilateral military exercises are either openly NATO exercises or exercises led by individual NATO powers like the US and France to foster interoperability, operations and procedures according to NATO standards. Regarding bilateral military exercises, the key NATO powers like the US, the UK, France and Turkey dominate. What is noticeable is the sharp increase in the number of exercises compared to 2022 in some countries (Montenegro, North Macedonia, Croatia). For instance, the number of exercises the Croatian military took part in soared from 14 in 2022 to 66 in 2023. Also, the Serbian government introduced an exemption from the ban applied to a single military exercise that Serbia participated in during 2023, the “Platinum Wolf 2023”, co-organised by United States European Command and Serbian Armed Forces and hosted by Serbia.

The data on international military donations are less comprehensive and do not always provide a systemic overview. Albanian MoD refused to provide data on its international military cooperation, so the research focused on public sources. The regional overview is that the US and the EU were the dominant military donors for the Western Balkan countries, while in case of Serbia it was China, and in case of Montenegro, Turkey. The EU was the largest military donor to Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia. In the case of Croatia, the US appears to be the traditionally dominant international donor.

Minor and major changes have occurred regarding participation in international military missions. In NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Latvia, North Macedonia replaced the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence team (CBRN defence team) with an artillery unit. North Macedonia dispatched one liaison officer to Germany for NATO’s International Donor Coordination Centre and Security Assistance Group Ukraine (SAGU). There appear to be no major changes regarding Montenegro’s participation in multilateral peace missions compared to 2022. The new Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022 decided to continue the participation in international peacekeeping missions, which the country participated in, in 2021. Albanian MoD did not provide data on the number of Albanian troops in international peacekeeping missions, which is why research relied on open sources. In those cases where it was not possible to determine the exact number of troops, it was presumed that the number was the same as in 2022.

The biggest change was the fact that Serbia dispatched ten soldiers to a US-led mission in Sinai, Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) charged with overseeing the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Namely, since Serbia declared its military neutrality, it has pursued a practice of only dispatching soldiers to peace missions under the auspices of the UN or the EU. However, in Sinai, Serbian soldiers will be in MFO Sinai with their US counterparts. This mission, alongside the Serbian participation in the “Platinum Wolf 2023” exercise, speaks of Belgrade’s partial pivot towards Washington in security and defence policy.

2024 International Military Cooperation

In 2022, the year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, four of the six analysed Balkan countries continued their international military cooperation in the context of their obligations as NATO member states. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a member of the Alliance, most of Sarajevo’s international military cooperation still revolves around NATO and its members. Serbia remains the regional outlier, upholding its military neutrality and foreign policy based on geopolitical balancing.

As regards to military exercises, NATO member states from the Balkans – Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia – conduct their exercises within the NATO framework and with major NATO member states, including primarily the US, but also countries like the UK, Turkey and France. Even in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that is not a member of NATO and where there is no consensus among the constituent entities and ethnic groups on the country’s membership in the Alliance, NATO and its members dominate the agenda when it comes to international military cooperation. In 2022, Serbia was the only country in the region that did not engage in international military exercises, based on the Government’s decision to abort all activities related to military exercises due to the war in Ukraine.

The data was not always clear regarding military donations, but information provided by the relevant MoDs and public sources shows that the US, traditionally the biggest military donor to the Western Balkans, continued playing that role in the cases of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Albania experienced a shift, as Turkey – traditionally the second biggest military donor to this country – surpassed the US with the monetary value of its donations in 2022. The UK was the biggest military donor in North Macedonia, mostly because of the donation of mobile training units for urban operations.

What is new in 2022 compared to the previous year is that NATO member states in the Western Balkans have sent their troops to participate in NATO’s forward-deployed forces aimed at strengthening NATO’s eastern flank and deterring Russia. This was the case with NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Latvia, where Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro dispatched their troops; the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Poland (eFPBG-POL), where Croatia sent its troops; the NATO enhanced Vigilance Activities (eVA) in Bulgaria, where North Macedonia and Montenegro are present; and the NATO enhanced Vigilance Activities (eVA)in Romania, where North Macedonian troops are stationed. The Western Balkan countries continue to participate in more or less the same peacekeeping missions as in 2021. In some cases, there was a discrepancy regarding data; namely, the Albanian MoD mentioned 27 troops in NATO’s KFOR mission in Kosovo, while KFOR’s website talks about 61 troops.

2023 International Military Cooperation

With the exception of Serbia, countries in the region show similar patterns of cooperation with NATO members and within regional initiatives. Serbia additionally cooperates and exercises with Russia and Belarus, and has a greater number of bilateral exercises with NATO neighbours and the USA.

Balkan NATO members and Bosnia and Herzegovina predominantly partake in big multinational exercises of diverse functions, organised by the US Army in Europe or NATO. All the countries in the region cooperate and exercise with the National Guards of various US states – Albania with New Jersey, Bosnia and Herzegovina with Maryland, Croatia with Minnesota, Montenegro with Maine, North Macedonia with Vermont, and Serbia with Ohio. Countries often exercise within some of the existing regional initiatives such as the US – Adriatic Charter (A5) and the Balkan Medical Task Force.

According to the available data, the USA is by far the biggest donor of the defence sectors in the region. Russia has been a significant donor in Serbia in the preceding period, however, the value of its donations is kept confidential and the ranking of foreign donors cannot be made with certainty. Turkey has emerged as an important donor in the region, having recently signed bilateral agreements on military-financial cooperation with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro to donate funds for the purchase of Turkish arms and equipment.

Serbia partakes in UN and EU missions, whereas other countries in the region also participate in NATO operations and missions. Upon withdrawal from Afghanistan (where countries of the region had made significant contributions), some countries enhanced their presence in the KFOR mission in Kosovo or NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroups, whereas some have yet to reallocate their peacekeeping personnel. Besides peacekeeping operations Albania, Croatia and Montenegro also participate in NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroups in Latvia and Poland, while Croatia has decided to return to the Lithuanian battlegroup in 2023.

2022 International Military Cooperation