How Kosovo Poisoned America's Relationship with Russia

F-117 Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The Kosovo intervention set terrible precedents that have come back to haunt the West.

George W. Bush’s administration condemned both Moscow’s initial invasion and the Kremlin’s subsequent actions, as did Washington’s NATO allies. But just as Russia was not in a position to do much about NATO’s conduct in Kosovo, the Western powers (short of initiating a war against Russia) could do little about Moscow’s meddling in Georgia. The episode marked another stage in the continuing deterioration of relations between the West and Russia.

The Kosovo precedent came back to haunt the United States again in 2014 when the Kremlin enhanced its military presence on the Crimea Peninsula and used it to “supervise” a referendum in which Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine. That step was a prelude to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. Washington reacted with even greater anger than it had following Moscow’s invasion of Georgia, soon imposing an array of economic sanctions against Russia. At a press conference, President Obama fumed that Russia could not be allowed to redraw “the borders of Europe at the barrel of a gun.” None of the journalists in the room asked the president what he thought NATO had done in Kosovo.

The Kosovo intervention was an even worse U.S. foreign-policy blunder than the earlier intervention in Bosnia. It empowered an extremely unsavory political movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which proceeded to commit an array of human-rights abuses. The mission further transformed NATO from a defensive military alliance into a mechanism for aggressive nation-building crusades. Forcibly amputating the territory of a sovereign state created a worrisome template in the post–Cold War international system. Washington further undermined international law by bypassing the UN Security Council and using an ad hoc Western coalition to grant a secessionist entity independence. Those measures set extremely damaging precedents that have returned to plague the West. And last, but certainly not least, the actions of the United States and its NATO allies in Kosovo further poisoned relations with Russia. In every respect, the U.S.-led Kosovo mission was unwise and counterproductive.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.

Image: F-117 Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain