By George Friedman
The subject of independence for Kosovo is re-emerging as a serious issue. The West seems intent on letting the Serbian province break away and sees the issue as being of no great importance. The Russians see the situation very differently, however. And therein lies a potential crisis.
Russia: Kosovo and the Asymmetry of Perceptions
Kosovo appears to be an archaic topic. The Yugoslavian question was a 1990s issue, while the Kosovo issue has appeared to be one of those conflicts that never quite goes away but isn't regarded very seriously by the international community. You hear about it but you don't care about it. However, Kosovo is getting very serious again.
The United States and Europe appear committed to making Kosovo, now a province of Serbia, an independent state. Of course, Serbia opposes this, but more important, so does Russia. Russia opposed the original conflict, but at that point it was weak and its wishes were irrelevant. Russia opposes independence for Kosovo now, and it is far from the weak state it was in 1999 -- and is not likely to take this quietly. Kosovo's potential as a flash point between Russia and the West makes it important again. Let's therefore review the action to this point.
In 1999, NATO, led by the United States, conducted a 60-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and its main component, Serbia. The issue was the charge that Yugoslavia was sponsoring the mass murder of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, just as it had against Bosnian Muslims. The campaign aimed to force the Yugoslav army out of Kosovo while allowing a NATO force to occupy and administer the province.
Two strands led to this action. The first was the fear that the demonstrable atrocities committed by Serbs in Bosnia were being repeated in Kosovo. The second was the general feeling dominant in the 1990s that the international community's primary task was dealing with rogue states behaving in ways that violated international norms. In other words, it was assumed that there was a general international consensus on how the world should look, that the United States was the leader of this international consensus and that there was no power that could threaten the United States or the unity of the vision. There were only weak, isolated rogue states that had to be dealt with. There was no real risk attached to these operations. Yugoslavia was identified as one of those rogue states. The United States, without the United Nations but with the backing of most European countries, dealt with it.
There was no question that Serbs committed massive atrocities in Bosnia, and that Bosnians and Croats carried out massive atrocities against Serbs. These atrocities occurred in the context of Yugoslavia's explosion after the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia had been part of an arc running from the Danube to the Hindu Kush, frozen into place by the Cold War. Muslims had been divided by the line, with some living in the former Soviet Union but most on the other side. The Yugoslav state consisted of Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims; it was communist but anti-Soviet and cooperated with the United States. It was an artificial state imposed on multiple nationalities by the victors of World War I and held in place after World War II by the force field created by U.S.-Soviet power. When the Soviets fell, the force field collapsed and Yugoslavia detonated, followed later by the rest of the arc.
The NATO mission, then, was to stabilize the western end of this arc, Yugoslavia. The strategy was to abolish the multinational state created after World War I and replace it with a series of nation-states -- such as Slovenia and Macedonia -- built around a coherent national unit. This would stabilize Yugoslavia. The problem with this plan was that each nation-state would contain substantial ethnic minorities, regardless of attempts to redraw the borders. Thus, Bosnia contains Serbs. But the theory was that small states overwhelmingly consisting of one nationality could remain stable in the face of ethnic diversity so long as there was a dominant nation -- unlike Yugoslavia, where there was no central national grouping.
So NATO decided to re-engineer the Balkans much as they were re-engineered after World War I. NATO and the United States got caught in a weird intellectual trap. On the one hand, there was an absolute consensus that the post-World War II borders of Europe were sacrosanct. If that wasn't the case, then Hungarians living in Romanian Transylvania might want to rejoin Hungary, Turkish regions of Cyprus might want to join Turkey, Germany might want to reclaim Silesia and Northern Ireland might want to secede from the United Kingdom. All hell could break loose, and one of the ways Europe avoided hell after 1945 was a cardinal rule: No borders would shift.
The re-engineering of Yugoslavia was not seen as changing borders. Rather, it was seen as eliminating a completely artificial state and freeing genuine nations to have their own states. But it was assumed that the historic borders of those states could not be changed merely because of the presence of other ethnic groups concentrated in a region. So the desire of Bosnian Serbs to join Serbia was rejected, both because of the atrocious behavior of the Bosnian Serbs and because it would have shifted the historic borders of Bosnia. If all of this seems a bit tortured, please recall the hubris of the West in the 1990s. Anything was possible, including re-engineering the land of the south Slavs, as Yugoslavia's name translates in English.
In all of this, Serbia was seen as the problem. Rather than viewing Yugoslavia as a general failed project, Serbia was seen not so much as part of the failure but as an intrinsically egregious actor that had to be treated differently than the rest, given its behavior, particularly against the Bosnians. When it appeared that the Serbs were repeating their actions in Bosnia against Albanian Muslims in 1999, the United States and other NATO allies felt they had to intervene.
In fact, the level of atrocities in Kosovo never approached what happened in Bosnia, nor what the Clinton administration said was going on before and during the war. At one point, it was said that hundreds of thousands of men were missing, and later that 10,000 had been killed and bodies were being dissolved in acid. The post-war analysis never revealed any atrocities on this order of magnitude. But that was not the point. The point was that the United States had shifted to a post-Cold War attitude, and that since there were no real threats against the United States, the primary mission of foreign policy was dealing with minor rogue states, preventing genocide and re-engineering unstable regions. People have sought explanations for the Kosovo war in vast and complex conspiracies. The fact is that the motivation was a complex web of domestic political concerns and a genuine belief that the primary mission was to improve the world.
The United States dealt with its concerns over Kosovo by conducting a 60-day bombing campaign designed to force Yugoslavia to withdraw from Kosovo and allow NATO forces in. The Yugoslav government, effectively the same as the Serbian government by then, showed remarkable resilience, and the air campaign was not nearly as effective as the air forces had hoped. The United States needed a war-ending strategy. This is where the Russians came in.
Russia was weak and ineffective, but it was Serbia's only major ally. The United States prevailed on the Russians to initiate diplomatic contacts and persuade the Serbs that their position was isolated and hopeless. The carrot was that the United State agreed that Russian peacekeeping troops would participate in Kosovo. This was crucial for the Serbians, as it seemed to guarantee the interests of Serbia in Kosovo, as well as the rights of Serbs living in Kosovo. The deal brokered by the Russians called for a withdrawal of the Serbian army from Kosovo and entry into Kosovo of a joint NATO-Russian force, with the Russians guaranteeing that Kosovo would remain part of Serbia.
This ended the war, but the Russians were never permitted -- let alone encouraged -- to take their role in Serbia. The Russians were excluded from the Kosovo Force (KFOR) decision-making process and were isolated from NATO's main force. When Russian troops took control of the airport in Pristina in Kosovo at the end of the war, they were surrounded by NATO troops.
In effect, NATO and the United States reneged on their agreement with Russia. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Foreign Ministry caved in the face of this reneging, leaving the Russian military -- which had ordered the Kosovo intervention -- hanging. In 1999, this was a fairly risk-free move by the West. The Russians were in no position to act.
The degree to which Yeltsin's humiliation in Kosovo led to the rise of Vladimir Putin is not fully understood. Putin represented a faction in the intelligence-military community that regarded Kosovo as the last straw. There were, of course, other important factors leading to the rise of Putin, but the Russian perception that the United States had double-crossed them in an act of supreme contempt was a significant factor. Putin came to office committed to regaining Russian intellectual influence after Yeltsin's inertia.
The current decision by the United States and some European countries to grant independence to Kosovo must be viewed in this context. First, it is the only case in Yugoslavia in which borders are to shift because of the presence of a minority. Second, it continues the policy of re-engineering Yugoslavia. Third, it proceeds without either a U.N. or NATO mandate, as an action supported by independent nations -- including the United States and Germany. Finally, it flies in the face of Russian wishes.
This last one is the critical point. The Russians clearly are concerned that this would open the door for the further redrawing of borders, paving the way for Chechen independence movements, for example. But that isn't the real issue. The real issue is that Serbia is an ally of Russia, and the Russians do not want Kosovar independence to happen. From Putin's point of view, he came to power because the West simply wouldn't take Russian wishes seriously. If there were a repeat of that display of indifference, his own authority would be seriously weakened.
Putin is rebuilding the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. He is meeting with the Belarusians over reintegration. He is warning Ukraine not to flirt with NATO membership. He is reasserting Russian power in the Caucasus and Central Asia. His theme is simple: Russia is near and strong; NATO is far away and weak. He is trying to define Russian power in the region. Though Kosovo is admittedly peripheral to this region, if no European power is willing to openly challenge Russian troops in Kosovo, then Russia will have succeeded in portraying NATO as a weak and unreliable force.
If the United States and some European powers can create an independent Kosovo without regard to Russian wishes, Putin's prestige in Russia and the psychological foundations of his grand strategy will suffer a huge blow. If Kosovo is granted independence outside the context of the United Nations, where Russia has veto power, he will be facing the same crisis Yeltsin did. If he repeats Yeltsin's capitulation, he will face substantial consequences. Putin and the Russians repeatedly have warned that they wouldn't accept independence for Kosovo, and that such an act would lead to an uncontrollable crisis. Thus far, the Western powers involved appear to have dismissed this. In our view, they shouldn't. It is not so much what Putin wants as the consequences for Putin if he does not act. He cannot afford to acquiesce. He will create a crisis.
Putin has two levers. One is economic. The natural gas flowing to Europe, particularly to Germany, is critical for the Europeans. Putin has a large war chest saved from high energy prices. He can live without exports longer than the Germans can live without imports. It is assumed that he wouldn't carry out this cutoff. This assumption does not take into account how important the Kosovo issue is to the Russians.
The second option is what we might call the "light military" option. Assume that Putin would send a battalion or two of troops by air to Belgrade, load them onto trucks and send them toward Pristina, claiming this as Russia's right under agreements made in 1999. Assume a squadron of Russian aircraft would be sent to Belgrade as well. A Russian naval squadron, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, already is headed to the Mediterranean. Obviously, this is not a force that could impose anything on NATO. But would the Germans, for example, be prepared to open fire on these troops?
If that happened, there are other areas of interest to Russia and the West where Russia could exert decisive military power, such as the Baltic states. If Russian troops were to enter the Baltics, would NATO rush reinforcements there to fight them? The Russian light military threat in Kosovo is that any action there could lead to a Russian reaction elsewhere.
The re-engineering of the Balkans always has assumed that there is no broader geopolitical price involved. Granting Kosovo independence would put Russia in a position in which interests that it regards as fundamental are challenged. Even if the West doesn't see why this should be the case, the Russians have made clear that it is so -- and have made statements essentially locking themselves into a response or forcing themselves to accept humiliation. Re-engineering a region where there is no risk is one thing; re-engineering a region where there is substantial risk is another.
In our view, the Russians would actually welcome a crisis. Putin wants to demonstrate that Russia is a great power. That would influence thinking throughout the former Soviet Union, sobering eastern Central Europe as well -- and Poland in particular. Confronting the West as an equal and backing it into a corner is exactly what he would like. In our view, Putin will seize the Kosovo issue not because it is of value in and of itself but because it gives him a platform to move his strategic policy forward.
The Germans have neither the resources nor the appetite for such a crisis. The Americans, bogged down in the Islamic world, are hardly in a position to deal with a crisis over Kosovo. The Russian view is that the West has not reviewed its policies in the Balkans since 1999 and has not grasped that the geopolitics of the situation have changed. Nor, in our view, has Washington or Berlin grasped that a confrontation is exactly what the Russians are looking for.
We expect the West to postpone independence again, and to keep postponing it. But the Albanians might force the issue by declaring unilateral independence. The Russians would actually be delighted to see this. But here is the basic fact: For the United States and its allies, Kosovo is a side issue of no great importance. For the Russians, it is both a hot-button issue and a strategic opportunity. The Russians won't roll over this time. And the asymmetry of perceptions is what crises are made of.