In the aftermath of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on Feb. 17, Moscow and Washington are trading accusations as to which country has acted more irresponsibly.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns complained that Moscow had been given the opportunity to help facilitate the separation of Kosovo from Serbia in a stable, orderly fashion: “So we gave Russia every chance, both in the Security Council last spring and summer, in the negotiations which we co-sponsored with the Russians, but now we have to move ahead,” he told reporters.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking at the Nixon Center in Washington, DC, had a different version. The United States pushed ahead with independence for Kosovo despite the “significant damage” this might do to the fabric of an international order predicated on the territorial integrity of states. And by holding out for independence as the only possible solution, Washington both stymied genuine negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo and also undercut the United Nations. Kosovo is not just a “U.S.-Russia” issue, Peskov said; Washington and Moscow had a responsibility for “joint care” of the international system.
Kosovo is the latest irritant in what was already a deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship. Disagreements over energy policy, the best way to pressure Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, the U.S. decision to deploy components of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, a further round of NATO expansion to encompass former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the course of Russia’s own domestic political and economic evolution (away from the preferred model endorsed by the United States) have all contributed to a growing chill in ties between Moscow and Washington. Gone is the talk heard in the aftermath of 9/11 of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries—and visible, public flare-ups such as Putin’s 2007 Munich speech divert attention from those areas where there is a productive Russian-American relationship (in stemming nuclear proliferation, cooperation in fighting terrorism, and growing business ties).
But the Kosovo issue has the potential to spoil relations even further, especially because it is becoming inextricably linked to other contentious issues such as efforts to diminish European dependence on Russia as the continent’s principal supplier of energy, the ongoing plans to deploy BMD in eastern Europe, and whether NATO will undergo a third round of expansion to eventually encompass former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia.
To understand why, it is important to listen to Moscow’s narrative over Kosovo.
Peskov summed up Russia’s attitude when he said this past week that Moscow could not share Washington’s view about the “uniqueness of the Kosovo case.” For many Russian officials, Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign against Albanian separatists in the 1990s was no worse than the operations carried out by the Turkish military against the Kurds in that country’s southeast—activities the United States was prepared to overlook. And when the U.S. chose to justify a military intervention against Belgrade in 1999 by appealing to NATO, bypassing the UN Security Council altogether, most in Moscow concluded that America’s definition of “consulting” with the other major powers was to tell them what position they needed to accept.
But when the air campaign produced neither a rapid capitulation on the part of Milosevic and led to a humanitarian crisis as Belgrade used the NATO operation to justify expelling hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from the province, Washington discovered it needed Moscow. The story one hears from Russians is that a President Clinton, anxious to avoid having to send U.S. ground forces, prevailed on the Russian government to use its good offices (via the diplomatic efforts of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin) to tell Milosevic that the U.S. would limit its ambitions for Kosovo to seeking substantial autonomy for the province, leaving a token, face-saving degree of Serbian control. This understanding was then codified in UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which placed Kosovo under an interim UN administration under whose auspices the transition to “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration for Kosovo” would take place. This process, however, was to respect the “principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia is the successor state.
Then U.S. ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke now says this resolution was a tactical compromise and that “Kosovo is gone from Serbia forever” (as he wrote in the Washington Post in March 2007). But that is not what the Russians think. They thought—and continue to maintain—that the formula laid out in UNSCR 1244 reflected the consensus of the major powers. Its position (extensive autonomy but preservation of territorial integrity) is certainly is accordance with standard U.S. policy objectives in resolving other frozen conflicts in the Caucasus, the greater Middle East and in Africa and is the formula that governs relations between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, a “commonwealth” that nevertheless enjoys a distinct identity in some international forums including the Olympics. Other countries trying to balance between integrity and self-determination also welcomed this resolution, including states like India, Indonesia and South Africa. Beijing, for instance, signed onto this formulation because of the possible precedent in solving the Taiwan issue.
While the U.S. side places the blame for the lack of a final settlement squarely on the shoulders of the Serbs—for not accepting the inevitability of independence—Russia maintains the United States never put any pressure on the Kosovar Albanians to accept compromise formulations—the same ones Moscow says Washington wants the Abkhaz and South Ossetians to accept in terms of a final settlement with Georgia. These would have given a large measure of de facto independence to Kosovo but would have preserved formal Serbian sovereignty over the province. So Russians see this as yet another example of U.S. double standards.
Beyond those feelings, however, is a much more dangerous sentiment: a growing belief in Moscow that the U.S. cannot be trusted. Commenting on the U.S. decision to encourage Kosovo’s declaration of independence and to again bypass the United Nations, Evgeni Bazhanov, the vice rector of the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, said, “There is a real feeling of frustration in Moscow, the sense that agreements [with the United States and the West in general] don’t mean anything. They go ahead and change the terms however they wish.”
Let’s be clear: Russians understand perfectly well that if the United States feels that its vital interests are at stake, Washington is never going to seek a “permission slip” (to use the slogan uttered during the 2004 presidential race) from the UN Security Council to act. But what puzzles many Russians (and, for that matter, leading U.S. foreign policy conservatives like Bob Blackwill, Peter Rodman and John Bolton) is why insisting on independence for Kosovo as the only possible outcome—and setting what many considered to be an artificial deadline for the resolution of the province’s final status—was of such importance to the United States so as to justify the current upset.
Americans are free to disagree with the Russian version of events. But what we are not at liberty to do is to dismiss Moscow’s perspective as being of no concern.
The problem is that this growing belief in Russian foreign-policy circles that U.S. guarantees on Kosovo weren’t worth a continental is only the latest such incident. For years, Russians have that informal guarantees that were extended to Moscow in the wake of German reunification in 1990 that NATO would not expand—the Russians maintain that then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had told Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze that “NATO would not move an inch eastward outside of its present zone of action”—flew out the window once it was no longer convenient to the United States. (Russians also often cite then-Secretary General of NATO Manfred Warner’s speech of May 17, 1990, when he declared, “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.”
I have been told time and again by Russians that if the United States or other European countries genuinely believed that a post-Soviet Russia posed a real military threat to east European states or former Soviet republics, they could have extended security guarantees without having to expand NATO. And the response they say they have received is that none of these informal understandings “had been codified in any formal treaty or agreement and that, even if Western leaders such as Helmut Kohl or John Major reiterated what Baker or Worner had said, it was now of no consequence,” to use the words of Russian commentator Aleksey Pushkov.
Then we had the public-relations SNAFU over missile defense systems being deployed in eastern Europe, which complicated not only U.S. relations with Rus sia but also has created problems among NATO countries as well. It took nearly a year for U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates to propose that the U.S. would link the activation of such a system to the existence of a credible threat arising from Iran or another rogue state; up to that point, official statements from Washington did rule out the possibility of these components continuing to be stationed and operational even in the absence of a specified threat from Iran—stoking Russian paranoia to record heights. (On a related note, no senior U.S. figure has recently repeated what then-Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones proclaimed on February 11, 2002, when discussing the U.S. presence in Central Asia: “we don’t want U.S. bases in Central Asia” since “our goal with the Russians is to make sure that they understand we are not trying to compete with them in Central Asia, we’re not trying to take over Central Asia from them.”)
The current team running the Kremlin—one that will stay largely intact after the March 2 presidential elections—is highly pragmatic. Colorful figures like Russia’s representative to NATO Dmitry Rogozin might like to stir things up with tough talk about a Russian military presence in the Balkans, but, as Peskov frankly admitted, Russia is still interested in avoiding confrontation with the West, particularly the United States, since this would divert resources and attention from the overriding priority of Russian economic development. But what will continue to change is the weight accorded American statements by those in power in Russia. No longer is Russia prepared to change its stance or positions in order to receive vague U.S. assurances of “goodwill.”
We’ve already seen this clearly in regards to Iran. U.S. assertions about Iran’s intentions and its capabilities to move forward on a nuclear weapons program don’t carry much weight in Moscow (and were further undermined by the release of the National Intelligence Estimate). And this comes at a time when the United States, preoccupied by Iraq and dealing with the economic consequences of overstretch, is in less of a position to ignore what other powers, including Russia, think and want.
Perhaps the Kosovo affair is the last gasp of the U.S. worldview of the 1990s—the so-called “unipolar moment.” If so, then dealing with its aftermath, especially in the U.S.-Russia relationship, will test whether American politicians and policymakers are prepared to adapt to the realities of a much more multipolar 21st century. So far, the jury is out.
Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.
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