Revenge of the Balkans

Our adventurism in the Balkans is having serious consequences for American regional interests, even a decade later.

Strategic shortsightedness-defined as mistaking problems and issues of secondary or tertiary importance for those of vital importance, and being unable to foresee the predictable consequences of specific actions-is becoming a chronic malaise in Washington. So characteristic of U.S. policy in the Balkans in the 1990s and the more recent Iraq tragedy, it is now again apparent in U.S. actions with regard to Kosovo, and their spillover effects in the Caucasus. American policy makers had repeatedly told us that Kosovo was supposed to be a "unique" case, but apparently Vladimir Putin didn't get the memo. The ghosts of our Balkan problems, it seems, continue to haunt us.

The roots of the current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations spread far and wide, and some go back to the Balkans in the 1990s, especially the 1999 U.S. and NATO bombing of Serbia. Although little remarked upon in the West, NATO's first war marked a watershed in Russian perceptions of the United States and Europe, and, even more importantly, in Russia's post-Soviet evolution itself. Yegor Gaidar, one of the architects of Russia's post-Soviet economic reforms, told U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott at the time "if only you knew what a disaster this war is for those of us in Russia who want for our country what you want." The late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said much the same, noting that Russian views of the West,

started changing with the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia. It's fair to say that all layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. . . . So, the perception of the West as mostly a "knight of democracy" has been replaced with the disappointed belief that pragmatism, often cynical and selfish, lies at the core of Western policies. For many Russians it was a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals.

The consequences of this shift in Russian attitudes and perceptions, both for Russia itself and for the United States, were profound. Although it is impossible to say exactly what impact the Kosovo crisis had on Vladimir Putin's rise to power-less than two months after the end of the Kosovo war he was appointed prime minister, and within seven months he had become president of Russia-the section of Russian elite opinion that he embodied, and how it felt about NATO's actions in the Balkans, is clear enough.

Thus, at an historical juncture at which the primary purpose of U.S. foreign policy should have been fostering an international environment encouraging Russia's democratic transition, American policymakers chose instead to exploit Moscow's temporary weaknesses and engage in dubious military adventures (e.g., the bombing of Serbia) and strategic initiatives (e.g., NATO's expansion to Russia's borders, often in violation of previous promises made to Moscow) of questionable real value to U.S. national interests. Thomas Friedman put the matter into perspective when he recently asked "Wasn't consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?"

After the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq-importantly, without UN Security Council approval-Moscow's concerns about U.S. unilateralism, forcefully articulated by Putin at his February 2007 address before the Munich Conference on Security Policy-were inflamed by the U.S. push to grant Kosovo independence. At the G8 summit in Germany in June 2007, then-Russian President Putin was already signaling that what he called "universal principles" had to be applied to the frozen conflicts in Kosovo and the Caucasus, and Putin would later warn that U.S. and EU support for Kosovo's secession from Serbia was "illegal and immoral." In the UN Security Council, Russia's permanent representative Vitaly Churkin was trying to impress upon his colleagues the gravity with which Moscow viewed the Kosovo situation, saying that the Kosovo issue could represent the most important question the Security Council dealt with in this decade, and going to the extraordinary length of organizing a Security Council fact-finding mission to the region. The warnings from Moscow over Kosovo, however, were brushed aside by Brussels and Washington, and in both places it was widely assumed that Russia would roll over when presented with a fait accompli.

The result has been yet another questionable foreign policy initiative for the Bush administration. Six months after declaring independence, only forty-six countries have recognized Kosovo. The EU itself cannot agree on a position, with six of the twenty-seven members refusing to recognize the breakaway Serbian province. Most of the remaining countries that have recognized Kosovo include the likes of San Marino, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands and Burkina Faso. None of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have recognized, nor has Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), nor any of the Arab states. All told, three-fourths of the international community is following Moscow's lead on the Kosovo issue rather than Washington's.

In the Caucasus, meanwhile, Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17 led to an immediate increase in tensions. Call the Russians what you will, but you can't say that they are not fast learners. In the current crisis, Moscow copied Washington's Kosovo playbook in full, accusing Georgian forces of ethnic cleansing and war crimes, labeling Saakashvili a war criminal (just as Washington had done in 1999 with Slobodan Milosevic), and claiming that Georgian actions had disqualified it from ruling over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the future. Much like NATO officials had done in 1999, Russian officials also claimed that their intervention in Georgia was based on "humanitarian" motives. In fact, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov specifically compared Russian military actions in Georgia to NATO's actions in Serbia. According to Lavrov,