According to GLOBS Magazine, the oldest NATO mission of the Hungarian Defense Forces takes place in Kosovo. In the last conflict of the Western Balkan, Hungarian soldiers got involved in large numbers. The area is significantly important in the security policy framework of Budapest.
The Western Balkan region is in our focus since the beginning of the Hungarian statehood. In the perspective of security policy, the area became considerably important after the democratic transformation of 1989.
One of the first security challenges of the democratic Hungary was the Yugoslavian Civil War, which took place between 1991 and 1995.
During the conflict, tens of thousands of refugees arrived to Hungary, and the opposing parties often used the territory of the country for their military operations. The Serbian Air Force regularly flew over Hungary before attacking Croatian targets. Small units crossed Hungarian territories several times along the Serbian-Croatian-Hungarian triple border.
That was partly the reason why the Hungarian governments considered the NATO membership important, which was expected to guarantee the security of the nation. In 1997, the North Atlantic organization finally decided to accept the application of Hungary, along with the Czech Republic and Poland. The date of the ceremony was fixes for March 15, 1999, which would have coincided with the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
However, the preparations got disrupted by the emerged conflict between the NATO and Serbia regarding the situation of the Albanian population of Kosovo. At this time, only Serbia and Montenegro belonged to Yugoslavia. According to western accusations, Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milošević started ethnic cleansing against the Albanian minority. (The Albanian liberation organization UCK had already wanted to accomplish independence for a long time.)
Belgrade refused to comply with the demands of the NATO. Therefore, the possibility of war had been increased significantly in early 1999. The war tensions and military preparations forced Hungary to join NATO as soon as possible. So, the formal process was concluded four days earlier than planned, on May 12, 1999. Just 10 days later, the air war got started, and the NATO delivered bombs on Yugoslavian targets.
Hungary was not involved in the first part of the NATO interventions, because it was an oversensitive political topic in a neighbouring country hosting hundred thousands of native Hungarians and the Hungarian Defense Forces was militarily unfit for the task. The situation of the country was the key in the perspective of the NATO integration, because it was the only member state adjacent to Yugoslavia.
The last part of the war was the occupation of Yugoslavia in July, 1999. The operation was executed by the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) with 50.000 members. The KFOR moved in to Yugoslav territory from Greece and Albania. The primary objectives of KFOR were the deterrence of the Yugoslavian forces from further violence, as well as disarming the UCK. The management of the humanitarian situation became a task too, because hundreds of thousands of Albanians fled from Kosovo.
The role of Hungary in Kosovo was self-evident. It was the first opportunity for the Hungarian Defense Forces to show itself as member of the Alliance. However, it was important in the field of foreign policy, because this step contributed to the stability of the whole Western Balkan.
The involvement of the Hungarian Defense Forces was quite stable in the first ten years. The main force was the KFOR Guard and Support Battalion with 300-320 members.
The unit secured the more important KFOR outposts in Pristina and its surroundings. This mission was in lack of action due to its nature. However, it provided experience for the Hungarian army in the perspective of NATO interoperability. During the next step, the Hungarian involvement has changed in its nature, because the contingent moved from Pristina to Peć.
The significance of KFOR has constantly decreased in the 2000s. On the on hand, the mission operating in Afghanistan became more and more important for the NATO. The Central Asian country was a real battlefield, unlike the Western Balkan. Furthermore, it was very far from Europe from logistical standpoint. This remote theatre of war meant a real challenge for most of the member states from military point of view. The rapid development of security also contributed to the devaluation of Kosovo. Many tasks were taken over by the mission of the European Union and the Kosovo Security Force. (Kosovo still does not possess its own military).
The improving conditions were reflected in the decreasing number of the KFOR as well. In the beginning, 50.000 soldiers were deployed. In 2002, there were only 39.000 military personnel. In 2003, only 17.500 remained. However, the number of KFOR units were also increased in the further crises. For instance, there was a clash between the Albanian and the Serbian forces in 2004. In 2008, Kosovo proclaimed independence followed by a split in its recognition within EU and NATO allies. In the further stages of cutbacks, barely 10.000 personnel served in Kosovo. Between 2009 and 2011, the number was reduced to 5000. In the last couple of years, there are only 4000 soldiers present from 28 countries (8 of them are not members of the NATO, among them Russia).
After the withdrawal of the Hungarian mission in Afghanistan, the role in Kosovo was strengthened.
The presence was doubled in the recent years, and the current contingent with 380 personnel makes us the fifth largest troop-contributing nation. Not only the scale of the Hungarian contribution has changed, but its nature as well. For years, the Hungarian Defense Forces provide the Tactical Reserve Maneuver Battalion (KTM), which is under the direct control of the KFOR Commander.
The objective of this unit is “fire-fighting”. In case of any conflicts in Kosovo, this is the first vanguard unit of the KFOR.
In the beginning, the KTM was provided by Hungary and Portugal. Nowadays, it is built up by Hungarian soldiers only. It gives large responsibility and visibility for the Hungarian soldiers, because the battalion operates under the tactical control of the Commander. Accordingly, the soldiers have got involved in almost every operation of the KFOR with Albanian or Serbian extremists in the past couple of years. Besides, the KTM provides the tactical reserve of the EU ALTHEA crisis-management unit, which operates in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, Hungarian soldiers get deployed first, in case anything happens in the neighboring country.
While the significance of KFOR has been decreased for the NATO, Hungary “rediscovered” the mission in the recent years. The Deputy Commander of KFOR is a Hungarian person in the second half of every year. It is a sign of increased importance of the Hungarian contingent. Furthermore, the Commander of KFOR has been supported by Hungarian political advisors for years.
The Western Balkan remains a priority from security and economic point of view for Budapest in the future as well. (The migration crisis of 2015 and 2016 only confirmed that). Therefore, the military presence of the country in Kosovo serves Hungarian interest.
Source: by Péter WAGNER, Researcher of security policy at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade – GLOBS Magazine