Kosovo: Back to Square One

Published on July 25, 2007, Chronicles Magazine

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution

by Srdja Trifkovic

The United States government and its West European partners have given up on calling a U.N. Security Council vote on their joint resolution supporting Kosovos independence. They will initiate direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina instead, as Serbia and Russia have demanded all along. U.S. Ambassador at the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said there would be four months of negotiations between the parties under the auspices of the Contact Group. We hope that during the course of those negotiations, the parties will come to an agreement, Khalilzad said; but no one is saying what would happen if no agreement is reached after those 120 days.

In other words, we are back at Square One on Kosovoexactly where we had been at the end of 2005, before Marti Ahtisaari started his ill-fated mission to gerrymander an independent Kosova.

It would be amusing and instructive to compile a collection of quotes made since that time by assorted politicians, pundits, bureucrats, academics and legislators to the effect that Kosovos independence is inevitable and imminent. Amusing, because so many luminariesTom Lantos, Joseph Lieberman, Nicholas Burns, Daniel Serwer and Richard Holbrooke, among otherswere so obviously wrong; and instructive because their single-minded push for Kosovos independence is turning into yet another foreign policy disaster for the United States.

But old habits die hard. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried went to Belgrade last month to tell the Serbs that the game was up:

Kosovo will be independent. That is not simply an opinion; it is also a statement of where we think the result will be. Serbias leaders need to get beyond denial. They need to stop telling the Serbian people that it will not happen. They need to tell the Serbian people the truth which is that Milosevic lost Kosovo when he went to war with NATO and committed atrocities against the Kosovars. I will tell the truth if the Serbian leaders cannot, and that truth is that Serbia will not rule in Kosovo any more than Hungary will rule in the Vojvodina. Its gone. Its over.

Frieds shrill tone, bordering on hysteria, reflected weakness, rather than strength; it brought to mind Goebbelss famous Totalen Krieg speech in the aftermath of Stalingrad. In a similar vein, at the end of June President George W. Bush was in Tirana, telling his enthusiastic hosts that America has made up her mind on this issue (our support is solid, firm); and only last week Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said, We are committed to an independent Kosovo and we will get there one way or another.

The time has come to shake Bush, Fried, Rice et al from their pseudo-reality and explain to them what they dare not tell themselves: we will not get there this year, or next, or any other, any more than we did in 2006. In other words, it is time to tell them that Kosovo will NOT be independent. That is not simply an opinion; it is also a statement of diplomatic and political reality. Americas leaders need to get beyond denial. They need to stop telling themselves and the world that it will happen. They need to tell the American people the truth which is that Bush lost his Kosovo gambit when he turned it into a test of Russian resolve, after all the atrocities his predecessor committed against the Serbs. Chronicles will tell the truth if the U.S. Administration leaders cannot, and that truth is that their proteges will not rule in Kosovo any more than America will rule in Vietnam. Its gone, Mr. Fried, its over.

It is by now evident that independence will not be steamrolled through the Security Council, and no feasible scenario to bypass the UN is on the horizon. The time has come for some real negotiations between Belgrade and Pristinawith no time limits and no preordained outcomes.

What the advocates of Kosovos independence fail to grasp is that for the first time in two decades a great power is able, willing, and even determined to support and meaningfully defend a Serbian position in the mosaic of post-Yugoslav disputes. That power is Russia, and Putins motivation is not Orthodox or Slavic solidarity. It has little to do with Kosovo per se, or Serbia as such, and a lot to do with Russias return to the world stage as a self-confident great power that has had enough of American faits accomplis and dictates typical of the Yeltsin era.

Throughout those two decades the United States position has been admirably consistent. As Doug Bandow points out, successive administrations policy amounted to the question What the Serbs want? and, upon hearing the reply, a firm and unrelenting decision that they cannot have it and never will have it.

Franjo Tudjmans ethnic cleansing of hunderds of thousands of Serbs from the Krajina was thus aided and abetted by the U.S. on the grounds that Croatia had the right to protect her sovereignty and territorial integrity against Serbian separatism. Islamic fundamentalist Alija Izetbegovic was supported on the absurd pretext that he wanted to build a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, liberal-democratic Bosnia-Herzegovina. Albanian terrorists, war criminals and church-burning, dope-smuggling pimps were supported in Kosovo on the grounds that they had the right to self-determination.


The Soviet Union came into being as a revolutionary state that challenged any given status quo in principle, starting with the Comintern and ending three generations later with Afghanistan. Some of its aggressive actions and hostile impulses could be explained in light of traditional Russian motives, such as the need for security; at root, however, there was always an ideology unlimited in ambition and global in scope. At first, the United States tried to appease and accommodate the Soviets (1943-46), then moved to containment in 1947, and spent the next four decades building and maintaining essentially defensive mechanismssuch as NATOdesigned to prevent any major change in the global balance.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been trying to articulate her goals and define her policies in terms of national interests: peace and prosperity at home, stable domestic institutions, secure borders, friendly neighbors. The old Soviet dual-track policy of having normal relations with America, on the one hand, while seeking to subvert her, on the other, gave way to nave attempts by Boris Yeltsins foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev to forge a partnership with the United States.

By contrast, the early 1990s witnessed the beginning of Americas strident attempt to assert her status as the only global hyperpower. This ambition was inimical to post-Soviet stabilization and kept Washington from entertaining the suggestion that Russia might have legitimate interests in her own post-Soviet backyard. The United States adopted her own dual-track approach. When Mikhail Gorbachevs agreement was needed for German reunification, President George H.W. Bush gave a firm and public promise that NATO wound not move eastward. Within years, however, Bill Clinton expanded NATO to include all the former Warsaw Pact countries of Central Europe.

Another round of NATO expansion came under George W. Bush, when three former Soviet Baltic republics were admittedand the process is far from over. Last April Mr. Bush signed the Orwellian-sounding NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007, which extends U.S. military assistance to such aspiring NATO members as Georgia and the Ukraine. The rationale for NATOs continued existence was found in the nebulous (and revolutionary) concept of humanitarian intervention used against the Serbs in 1999. Further expansion, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, is mandatoryhistorically mandatory, geopolitically desirable.

In the wake of September 11, President Bush talked Russia into sanctioning the U.S. militarys presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but then, in the name of the War on Terror, tried to make that presence permanent. In 2002 President Bush unilaterally abrogated the ABM Treaty. His goal was to push forward elements of the U.S. anti-ballistic-missile system closer to Russias borders, with the spurious claim that radar stations in Poland or Bohemia will protect the West from Irans ICBMs.

The collapse of Russias state institutions and social infrastructure under Yeltsin, accompanied by a hyperinflation that reduced the middle class and pensioners to penury, was a trauma of incomparably greater magnitude than the Great Depression. Yet its architectsAnatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkovwere hailed in Washington as pro-Western reformers, and their political factions and media outlets were duly supported by the U.S. taxpayers, by way of a network of quasi-NGOs.

The wholesale robbery of Russian resources by the Moscow oligarchs and the fire sale of drilling concessions to the oligarchs Western cohorts became a contentious issue in U.S.-Russian relations only a decade later, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Those spewing furious allegations of Putins revenge and heavy-handedness against the Yukos boss disregarded the fact that, quite apart from his political ambitions, Khodorkovsky was guilty of fraud and tax evasion on a massive scale.

While never missing an opportunity to hector Russia on democracy and criticize her human-rights record, the United States has been notably silent on the discriminatory treatment of large Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics In Latvia and Estonia, the Russians are subjected to arguably the worst treatment of any minority group by a member of the European Union or (with the exception of Turkey) of NATO. The demonstrations in Estonia against the governments provocative removal of a Russian World War II memorial from Tallinn were but a symptom of a deeper malaise. As Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation wrote recently, Latvia and Estonia have been allowed by the West flagrantly to break promises made before independence.

Washington apparently still views Russia as a state with limited sovereignty even within her post-Soviet borders. Chechnya is the obvious example: The White House routinely condemns Russian violations while demanding dialogue and studiously refraining from designating the Chechen child-slayers as terrorists; but no other aspect of Russias domestic policies, from education (ethnocentric) and immigration (restrictive) to homosexual rights (appalling) and jurisprudence (corrupt), has escaped scathing criticism. On the eve of his G-8 meeting with Putin last May, Mr. Bush declared that reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development.

On current form, things will remain the same, or perhaps become worse, no matter who comes to the White House in 2008. Richard Holbrooke, the Democrats perennially designated secretary of state, wants a firm response to a series of Russian challenges to the stability of Europe such as the refusal to accept Kosovos independence. He descries Putins increasingly authoritarian, often brutal, policies, yet cautions that, until President Bush weighs in strongly with Putin (as President Bill Clinton did a decade ago with Boris Yeltsin), there is a serious risk Moscow will not get the message.


Far from being deterred by Mr. Bushs apparent commitment to Kosovos independence, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees it as a God-sent chance to embarrass Mr. Bush and show the world that Russia can no longer be treated with the mix of disdainful arrogance and the way it was treated under Yeltsin. With the Administrations options diminishing, Putins are increasing.

On the diplomatic front, Russia can and will veto any resolution presented to the Security Council that is based on Ahtisaaris moribund plan and that assumes independence as the final outcome. Resolution 1244 cannot be legally bypassed, and it is unequivocal about Serbias sovereignty. If the European Union (under American pressure) tries to bypass the UN, however, Putin can retaliate by playing his energy card. According to Russian and global affairs analyst George Friedman of Stratfor,

The Russians would cut supplies if provoked. Kosovo really is that big an issue to them. If they gave in on this, all of Putins efforts to re-establish Russia as a great power would be undermined. Putin wants to remind Germany in particularbut also other former Soviet satellitesthat thwarting Russia carries a price. If the European Union were to unilaterally act against Russian wishes, Putin would have to choose between appearing as if he is all talk and no action, and acting. Putin would choose the latter.

According to the same source, Putin also has a military option. Contrary to popular belief, the Russians retain increasingly effective military units. The Russian military retains an excellent core, particularly in its airborne regiments. The Russians could fly a regiment of troops to Belgrade, use Serbian trucks to move to the administrative line dividing Kosovo from the rest of Serbia, and threaten to move into Kosovo to take their place in KFOR.

The Europeans would protest, but they would not react. Western Europe is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and it cannot afford to follow Washington into an open-ended confrontation over a peripheral issue. Signals from Moscow indicate that challenging Kosovos independence militarily would prompt Russia to call NATO defense capabilities into question, which could leave the Europeans even more fractured. Do not assume that the Russians would not dare try such a move, the Russian source insists: The Russians are itching for an opportunity to confront the Westand win. In the case of Kosovo, should they choose to make an issue of it, they have the diplomatic, economic and military options to force the West to back down. Condoleezza Rice has said that Kosovo will never be returned to Serbian rule. Putin would love to demonstrate that it doesnt matter what the U.S. secretary of state wants.b

In short, Kosovo is an asymmetric issue. Mr. Bush cares about it only as it relates to U.S. credibility. Accepting the assurances of inherited Clintonite bureaucrats of Mr. Burnss ilk that the Serbs would cave in and that the Russians would budge may well prove to have been the second greatest blunder of his presidency.

If push comes to shove, Mr. Bush will face Moscow all alone. There is a great deal of dissent in Europe, from Madrid to Athens to Bucharest and Bratislava, but not even those Europeans who are nominally pro-independencenotably Germanswould not sacrifice a single days supply of natural gas over Albanian claims. By contrast, for Serbia this is an existential issue and for Russia it is a litmus test of her ability to be once again a great power, and to be seen and respected as one, after the dreadful Yeltsin interlude.


It is not prudent for the United States to insist that Kosovo should and will become independentas President George W. Bush did in Tirana last June, followed by Dr. Rice and her aides on an almost daily basiseven as it is obvious that Russia will veto any attempt to achieve that goal through the United Nations Security Council, and even as the European Union is increasingly reluctant to participate in any scheme to bypass the UN. Statements by American officials that Kosovos independence is inevitable are a classic case of irresponsible policy-makers painting themselves into a corner on a peripheral issue, and then claiming that the issue had morphed into a test of American resolve.

A responsible leadership in Washington would never allow Kosovo to become such a test for three reasons.

1. Quite apart from historic, cultural, moral and legal aspects, the issue of who controls the southern Serbian province is perfectly irrelevant to American interests. It is a small, land-locked piece of real estate, of dubious objective value, away from all major Balkan transit corridors, and not nearly as rich in natural resources as both Serbs and Albanians like to imagine. If Kosovo were to disappear tomorrow, no ordinary American would be able to tell the difference.

2. The change of Kosovos status against the will of Belgrade, in addition to being a clear violation of the Law of Nations, would set a precedent potentially detrimental to U.S. interests. To enable an ethnic minority to secede from an internationally recognized state on the grounds of that minoritys numerical preponderance in a given locale would open Pandoras box of claims all over the world, not least among Russian speakers in the Crimea, parts of Estonia and Latvia, northern Kazakhstan, and eastern Ukraine. It could also affect the future of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and perhaps even California, when Mexicans achieve simple majority in those states. (On current form the question is indeed when, not if.) State Department officials Nicholas Burns and Daniel Fried still insist that no precedent would be set by creating an independent Kosovo, but they cannot control reality and their assurances are nonsensical.

3. The likely cost of persevering will exceed any conceivable benefits of such policy to the United States. The Muslim world will not be appeased by Kosovo today any more than it was appeased by Bosnia a decade ago. America will not earn any brownie points among the worlds Jihadists of all color and hue (Rep. Tom Lantos) for creating a new Muslim state in the heart of Europe. Albanian gratitude would prove as valuable to America today as it has been, over the years, to Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China. On the other hand, the failure to create an independent, internationally recognized Kosovo would be yet another sign that Mr. Bush has no clothes and that America has no sureness of touch. Furthermore, favoring the imposition of a solution from the outside against the will of one of the parties could set a dangerous long-term precedent for Israel.

The U.S. policy is not sensible. It panders to the aspirations of a small and primitive, yet shrewdly opportunistic nation with territorial pretensions against all of her neighbors. Mr. Bushs histrionics in Tirana were greeted almost as enthusiastically as Benito Mussolini, Nikita Khrushchev, and Chou En-Lai had been greeted by the Albanians over the decades. As Nicholas Stavrou noted in The National Herald, Mr. Bush fits into the Albanians talent for choosing patrons who fulfill three criteria: they must be big enough, far enough, and willing to offend the interests of Albanias neighbors.

It is plainly irrational to insist on Kosovos independence, with all the risks such policy entails, while the United States faces so many other unfinished businesses around the globe. The list is well known, and depressing. Iraq is a disaster, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Afghanistan is a lesser calamity only when compared to Iraq. Any solution to the challenge presented by Iran will depend on Washingtons ability to have Russia on its side as a partner, which is impossible if Moscows concerns over Kosovo are treated as illegitimate. Russia is also an essential partner in helping control Kim Jong Il and devising a sustainable long-term energy policy for the Western world.

Geopolitical and pragmatic arguments notwithstanding, the most important reason the United States should not support Kosovos independence is, and always has been, cultural and civilizational; but trying to explain that to the chief executive who is fanatically supportive of a blanket amnesty for tens of millions of illegal aliens in the United States is as futile as trying to reform Islam.

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