Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday. The United States and many, but not all, European countries recognized it. The Serbian government did not impose an economic blockade on — or take any military action against — Kosovo, although it declared the Albanian leadership of Kosovo traitors to Serbia. The Russians vehemently repeated their objection to an independent Kosovo but did not take any overt action. An informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was announced last week; it will take place in Moscow on Feb. 21. With Kosovo’s declaration, a river was crossed. We will now see whether that river was the Rubicon.
Kosovo’s independence declaration is an important event for two main reasons. First, it potentially creates a precedent that could lead to redrawn borders in Europe and around the world. Second, it puts the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany in the position of challenging what Russia has defined as a fundamental national interest — and this at a time when the Russians have been seeking to assert their power and authority. Taken together, each of these makes this a geopolitically significant event.
Begin with the precedent. Kosovo historically has been part of Serbia; indeed, Serbs consider it the cradle of their country. Over the course of the 20th century, it has become predominantly Albanian and Muslim (though the Albanian version of Islam is about as secular as one can get). The Serbian Orthodox Christian community has become a minority. During the 1990s, Serbia — then the heart of the now-defunct Yugoslavia — carried out a program of repression against the Albanians. Whether the repression rose to the level of genocide has been debated. In any case, the United States and other members of NATO conducted an air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 until the Yugoslavians capitulated, allowing the entry of NATO troops into the province of Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo, for all practical purposes, has been a protectorate of a consortium of NATO countries but has formally remained a province of Serbia. After the Kosovo war, wartime Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in the course of his trial for war crimes; a new leadership took over; and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia itself ultimately dissolved, giving way to a new Republic of Serbia.
The United Nations did not sanction the war in Kosovo. Russian opposition in the U.N. Security Council prevented any U.N. diplomatic cover for the Western military action. Following the war — in a similar process to what happened with regard to Iraq — the Security Council authorized the administration of Kosovo by the occupying powers, but it never clearly authorized independence for Kosovo. The powers administering Kosovo included the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and other European states, organized as the Kosovo Force (KFOR).
While the logic of the situation pointed toward an independent Kosovo, the mechanism envisioned for the province’s independence was a negotiated agreement with Serbia. The general view was that the new government and personalities in Belgrade would be far more interested in the benefits of EU membership than they would be in retaining control of Kosovo. Over nearly a decade, the expectation therefore was that the Serbian government would accede to an independent Kosovo in exchange for being put on a course for EU membership. As frequently happens — and amazes people for reasons we have never understood — nationalism trumped economic interests. The majority of Serbs never accepted secession. The United States and the Europeans, therefore, decided to create an independent Kosovo without Serbian acquiescence. The military and ethnic reality thus was converted into a political reality.
Those recognizing Kosovo’s independence have gone out of their way specifically to argue that this decision in no way constitutes a precedent. They argue that the Serbian oppression of the late 1990s, which necessitated intervention by outside military forces to protect the Kosovars, made returning Kosovo to Serbian rule impossible. The argument therefore goes that Kosovo’s independence must be viewed as an idiosyncratic event related to the behavior of the Serbs, not as a model for the future.
Other European countries, including Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus, have expressly rejected this reasoning. So have Russia and China. Each of these countries has a specific, well-defined area dominated by a specific ethnic minority group. In these countries and others like them, these ethnic groups have demanded, are demanding or potentially will demand autonomy, secession or integration with a neighboring country. Such ethnic groups could claim, and have claimed, oppression by the majority group. And each country facing this scenario fears that if Kosovo can be taken from Serbia, a precedent for secession will be created.
The Spanish have Basque separatists. Romania and Slovakia each contain large numbers of Hungarians concentrated in certain areas. The Cypriots — backed by the Greeks — are worried that the Turkish region of Cyprus, which already is under a separate government, might proclaim formal independence. The Chinese are concerned about potential separatist movements in Muslim Xinjiang and, above all, fear potential Taiwanese independence. And the Russians are concerned about independence movements in Chechnya and elsewhere. All of these countries see the Kosovo decision as setting a precedent, and they therefore oppose it.
Europe is a case in point. Prior to World War II, Europe’s borders constantly remained in violent flux. One of the principles of a stable Europe has been the inviolability of borders from outside interference, as well as the principle that borders cannot be redefined except with mutual agreement. This principle repeatedly was reinforced by international consensus, most notably at Yalta in 1945 and Helsinki in 1973.
Thus, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could agree to separate, and the Soviet Union could dissolve itself into its component republics, but the Germans cannot demand the return of Silesia from Poland; outsiders cannot demand a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; and the Russians cannot be forced to give up Chechnya. The principle that outside powers can’t redefine boundaries, and that secessionist movements can’t create new nations unilaterally, has been a pillar of European stability.
The critics of Kosovo’s independence believe that larger powers can’t redraw the boundaries of smaller ones without recourse to the United Nations. They view the claim that Yugoslavia’s crimes in Kosovo justify doing so as unreasonable; Yugoslavia has dissolved, and the Serbian state is run by different people. The Russians view the major European powers and the Americans as arrogating rights that international law does not grant them, and they see the West as setting itself up as judge and jury without right of appeal.
This debate is not trivial. But there is a more immediate geopolitical issue that we have discussed before: the Russian response. The Russians have turned Kosovo into a significant issue. Moscow has objected to Kosovo’s independence on all of the diplomatic and legal grounds discussed. But behind that is a significant challenge to Russia’s strategic position. Russia wants to be seen as a great power and the dominant power in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Serbia is a Russian ally. Russia is trying to convince countries in the FSU, such as Ukraine, that looking to the West for help is futile because Russian power can block Western power. It wants to make the Russian return to great power status seem irresistible.
The decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence in the face of Russian opposition undermines Russian credibility. That is doubly the case because Russia can make a credible argument that the Western decision flies in the face of international law — and certainly of the conventions that have governed Europe for decades. Moscow also is asking for something that would not be difficult for the Americans and Europeans to give. The resources being devoted to Kosovo are not going to decline dramatically because of independence. Putting off independence until the last possible moment — which is to say forever, considering the utter inability of Kosovo to care for itself — thus certainly would have been something the West could have done with little effort.
But it didn’t. The reason for this is unclear. It does not appear that anyone was intent on challenging the Russians. The Kosovo situation was embedded in a process in which the endgame was going to be independence, and all of the military force and the bureaucratic inertia of the European Union was committed to this process. Russian displeasure was noted, but in the end, it was not taken seriously. This was simply because no one believed the Russians could or would do anything about Kosovar independence beyond issuing impotent protestations. Simply put, the nations that decided to recognize Kosovo were aware of Russian objections but viewed Moscow as they did in 1999: a weak power whose wishes are heard but discarded as irrelevant. Serbia was an ally of Russia. Russia intervened diplomatically on its behalf. Russia was ignored.
If Russia simply walks away from this, its growing reputation as a great power will be badly hurt in the one arena that matters to Moscow the most: the FSU. A Europe that dismisses Russian power is one that has little compunction about working with the Americans to whittle away at Russian power in Russia’s own backyard. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko — who, in many ways, is more anti-Western than Russian President Vladimir Putin and is highly critical of Putin as well — has said it is too late to “sing songs” about Kosovo. He maintains that the time to stop the partition of Kosovo was in 1999, in effect arguing that Putin’s attempts to stop it were ineffective because it was a lost cause. Translation: Putin and Russia are not the powers they pretend to be.
That is not something that Putin in particular can easily tolerate. Russian grand strategy calls for Russia to base its economy on the export of primary commodities. To succeed at this, Russia must align its production and exports with those of other FSU countries. For reasons of both national security and economics, being the regional hegemon in the FSU is crucial to Russia’s strategy and to Putin’s personal credibility. He is giving up the presidency on the assumption that his personal power will remain intact. That assumption is based on his effectiveness and decisiveness. The way he deals with the West — and the way the West deals with him — is a measure of his personal power. Being completely disregarded by the West will cost him. He needs to react.
The Russians are therefore hosting an “informal” CIS summit in Moscow on Friday. This is not the first such summit, by any means, and one was supposed to be held before this but was postponed. On Feb. 11, however, after it became clear that Kosovo would declare independence, the decision to hold the summit was announced. If Putin has a response to the West on Kosovo, it should reveal itself at the summit.
There are three basic strategies the Russians can pursue. One is to try to create a coalition of CIS countries to aid Serbia. This is complex in that Serbia may have no appetite for this move, and the other CIS countries may not even symbolically want to play.
The second option is opening the wider issue of altering borders. This could be aimed at sticking it to the Europeans by backing Serbian secessionist efforts in bifurcated Bosnia-Herzegovina. It also could involve announcing Russia’s plans to annex Russian-friendly separatist regions on its borders — most notably the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and perhaps even eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. (Annexation would be preferred over recognizing independence, since it would reduce the chances of Russia’s own separatist regions agitating for secession.) Russia thus would argue that Kosovo’s independence opens the door for Russia to shift its borders, too. That would make the summit exciting, particularly with regard to the Georgians, who are allied with the United States and at odds with Russia on Abkhazia and other issues.
The third option involves creating problems for the West elsewhere. An Iranian delegation will be attending the summit as “observers.” That creates the option for Russia to signal to Washington that the price it will pay for Kosovo will be extracted elsewhere. Apart from increased Russian support for Iran — which would complicate matters in Iraq for Washington — there are issues concerning Azerbaijan, which is sandwiched between Russia and Iran. In the course of discussions with Iranians, the Russians could create problems for Azerbaijan. The Russians also could increase pressure on the Baltic states, which recognized Kosovo and whose NATO membership is a challenge to the Russians. During the Cold War, the Russians were masters of linkage. They responded not where they were weak but where the West was weak. There are many venues for that.
What is the hardest to believe — but is, of course, possible — is that Putin simply will allow the Kosovo issue to pass. He clearly knew this was coming. He maintained vocal opposition to it beforehand and reiterated his opposition afterward. The more he talks and the less he does, the weaker he appears to be. He personally can’t afford that, and neither can Russia. He had opportunities to cut his losses before Kosovo’s independence was declared. He didn’t. That means either he has blundered badly or he has something on his mind. Our experience with Putin is that the latter is more likely, and this suddenly called summit may be where we see his plans play out.