Karen — Georgia and Kosovo: A Single Intertwined Crisis

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Georgia and Kosovo: A Single Intertwined Crisis
August 25, 2008
By George Friedman
The Russo-Georgian war was rooted in broad geopolitical processes. In
large part it was simply the result of the cyclical reassertion of
Russian power. The Russian empire — czarist and Soviet — expanded to
its borders in the 17th and 19th centuries. It collapsed in 1992. The
Western powers wanted to make the disintegration permanent. It was
inevitable that Russia would, in due course, want to reassert its
claims. That it happened in Georgia was simply the result of
There is, however, another context within which to view this, the
context of Russian perceptions of U.S. and European intentions and of
U.S. and European perceptions of Russian capabilities. This context
shaped the policies that led to the Russo-Georgian war. And those
attitudes can only be understood if we trace the question of Kosovo,
because the Russo-Georgian war was forged over the last decade over
the Kosovo question.
Yugoslavia broke up into its component republics in the early 1990s.
The borders of the republics did not cohere to the distribution of
nationalities. Many — Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and so on — found
themselves citizens of republics where the majorities were not of
their ethnicities and disliked the minorities intensely for historical
reasons. Wars were fought between Croatia and Serbia (still calling
itself Yugoslavia because Montenegro was part of it), Bosnia and
Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia. Other countries in the region became
involved as well.
One conflict became particularly brutal. Bosnia had a large area
dominated by Serbs. This region wanted to secede from Bosnia and
rejoin Serbia. The Bosnians objected and an internal war in Bosnia
took place, with the Serbian government involved. This war involved
the single greatest bloodletting of the bloody Balkan wars, the mass
murder by Serbs of Bosnians.
Here we must pause and define some terms that are very casually thrown
around. Genocide is the crime of trying to annihilate an entire
people. War crimes are actions that violate the rules of war. If a
soldier shoots a prisoner, he has committed a war crime. Then there is
a class called “crimes against humanity.” It is intended to denote
those crimes that are too vast to be included in normal charges of
murder or rape. They may not involve genocide, in that the
annihilation of a race or nation is not at stake, but they may also go
well beyond war crimes, which are much lesser offenses. The events in
Bosnia were reasonably deemed crimes against humanity. They did not
constitute genocide and they were more than war crimes.
At the time, the Americans and Europeans did nothing about these
crimes, which became an internal political issue as the magnitude of
the Serbian crimes became clear. In this context, the Clinton
administration helped negotiate the Dayton Accords, which were
intended to end the Balkan wars and indeed managed to go quite far in
achieving this. The Dayton Accords were built around the principle
that there could be no adjustment in the borders of the former
Yugoslav republics. Ethnic Serbs would live under Bosnian rule. The
principle that existing borders were sacrosanct was embedded in the
Dayton Accords.
In the late 1990s, a crisis began to develop in the Serbian province
of Kosovo. Over the years, Albanians had moved into the province in a
broad migration. By 1997, the province was overwhelmingly Albanian,
although it had not only been historically part of Serbia but also its
historical foundation. Nevertheless, the Albanians showed significant
intentions of moving toward either a separate state or unification
with Albania. Serbia moved to resist this, increasing its military
forces and indicating an intention to crush the Albanian resistance.
There were many claims that the Serbians were repeating the crimes
against humanity that were committed in Bosnia. The Americans and
Europeans, burned by Bosnia, were eager to demonstrate their will.
Arguing that something between crimes against humanity and genocide
was under way — and citing reports that between 10,000 and 100,000
Kosovo Albanians were missing or had been killed — NATO launched a
campaign designed to stop the killings. In fact, while some killings
had taken place, the claims by NATO of the number already killed were
false. NATO might have prevented mass murder in Kosovo. That is not
provable. They did not, however, find that mass murder on the order of
the numbers claimed had taken place. The war could be defended as a
preventive measure, but the atmosphere under which the war was carried
out overstated what had happened.
The campaign was carried out without U.N. sanction because of Russian
and Chinese opposition. The Russians were particularly opposed,
arguing that major crimes were not being committed and that Serbia was
an ally of Russia and that the air assault was not warranted by the
evidence. The United States and other European powers disregarded the
Russian position. Far more important, they established the precedent
that U.N. sanction was not needed to launch a war (a precedent used by
George W. Bush in Iraq). Rather — and this is the vital point — they
argued that NATO support legitimized the war.
This transformed NATO from a military alliance into a quasi-United
Nations. What happened in Kosovo was that NATO took on the role of
peacemaker, empowered to determine if intervention was necessary,
allowed to make the military intervention, and empowered to determine
the outcome. Conceptually, NATO was transformed from a military force
into a regional multinational grouping with responsibility for
maintenance of regional order, even within the borders of states that
are not members. If the United Nations wouldn’t support the action,
the NATO Council was sufficient.
Since Russia was not a member of NATO, and since Russia denied the
urgency of war, and since Russia was overruled, the bombing campaign
against Kosovo created a crisis in relations with Russia. The Russians
saw the attack as a unilateral attack by an anti-Russian alliance on a
Russian ally, without sound justification. Then-Russian President
Boris Yeltsin was not prepared to make this into a major
confrontation, nor was he in a position to. The Russians did not so
much acquiesce as concede they had no options.
The war did not go as well as history records. The bombing campaign
did not force capitulation and NATO was not prepared to invade Kosovo.
The air campaign continued inconclusively as the West turned to the
Russians to negotiate an end. The Russians sent an envoy who
negotiated an agreement consisting of three parts. First, the West
would halt the bombing campaign. Second, Serbian army forces would
withdraw and be replaced by a multinational force including Russian
troops. Third, implicit in the agreement, the Russian troops would be
there to guarantee Serbian interests and sovereignty.
As soon as the agreement was signed, the Russians rushed troops to the
Pristina airport to take up their duties in the multinational force —
as they had in the Bosnian peacekeeping force. In part because of
deliberate maneuvers and in part because no one took the Russians
seriously, the Russians never played the role they believed had been
negotiated. They were never seen as part of the peacekeeping operation
or as part of the decision-making system over Kosovo. The Russians
felt doubly betrayed, first by the war itself, then by the peace
The Kosovo war directly effected the fall of Yeltsin and the rise of
Vladimir Putin. The faction around Putin saw Yeltsin as an incompetent
bungler who allowed Russia to be doubly betrayed. The Russian
perception of the war directly led to the massive reversal in Russian
policy we see today. The installation of Putin and Russian
nationalists from the former KGB had a number of roots. But
fundamentally it was rooted in the events in Kosovo. Most of all it
was driven by the perception that NATO had now shifted from being a
military alliance to seeing itself as a substitute for the United
Nations, arbitrating regional politics. Russia had no vote or say in
NATO decisions, so NATO’s new role was seen as a direct challenge to
Russian interests.
Thus, the ongoing expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union and
the promise to include Ukraine and Georgia into NATO were seen in
terms of the Kosovo war. From the Russian point of view, NATO
expansion meant a further exclusion of Russia from decision-making,
and implied that NATO reserved the right to repeat Kosovo if it felt
that human rights or political issues required it. The United Nations
was no longer the prime multinational peacekeeping entity. NATO
assumed that role in the region and now it was going to expand all
around Russia.
Then came Kosovo’s independence. Yugoslavia broke apart into its
constituent entities, but the borders of its nations didn’t change.
Then, for the first time since World War II, the decision was made to
change Serbia’s borders, in opposition to Serbian and Russian wishes,
with the authorizing body, in effect, being NATO. It was a decision
avidly supported by the Americans.
The initial attempt to resolve Kosovo’s status was the round of
negotiations led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari that
officially began in February 2006 but had been in the works since
2005. This round of negotiations was actually started under U.S.
urging and closely supervised from Washington. In charge of keeping
Ahtisaari’s negotiations running smoothly was Frank G. Wisner, a
diplomat during the Clinton administration. Also very important to the
U.S. effort was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian
Affairs Daniel Fried, another leftover from the Clinton administration
and a specialist in Soviet and Polish affairs.
In the summer of 2007, when it was obvious that the negotiations were
going nowhere, the Bush administration decided the talks were over and
that it was time for independence. On June 10, 2007, Bush said that
the end result of negotiations must be “certain independence.” In July
2007, Daniel Fried said that independence was “inevitable” even if the
talks failed. Finally, in September 2007, Condoleezza Rice put it
succinctly: “There’s going to be an independent Kosovo. We’re
dedicated to that.” Europeans took cues from this line.
How and when independence was brought about was really a European
problem. The Americans set the debate and the Europeans implemented
it. Among Europeans, the most enthusiastic about Kosovo independence
were the British and the French. The British followed the American
line while the French were led by their foreign minister, Bernard
Kouchner, who had also served as the U.N. Kosovo administrator. The
Germans were more cautiously supportive.
On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence and was recognized
rapidly by a small number of European states and countries allied with
the United States. Even before the declaration, the Europeans had
created an administrative body to administer Kosovo. The Europeans,
through the European Union, micromanaged the date of the declaration.
On May 15, during a conference in Ekaterinburg, the foreign ministers
of India, Russia and China made a joint statement regarding Kosovo. It
was read by the Russian host minister, Sergei Lavrov, and it said: “In
our statement, we recorded our fundamental position that the
unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo contradicts
Resolution 1244. Russia, India and China encourage Belgrade and
Pristina to resume talks within the framework of international law and
hope they reach an agreement on all problems of that Serbian
The Europeans and Americans rejected this request as they had rejected
all Russian arguments on Kosovo. The argument here was that the Kosovo
situation was one of a kind because of atrocities that had been
committed. The Russians argued that the level of atrocity was unclear
and that, in any case, the government that committed them was long
gone from Belgrade. More to the point, the Russians let it be clearly
known that they would not accept the idea that Kosovo independence was
a one-of-a-kind situation and that they would regard it, instead, as a
new precedent for all to follow.
The problem was not that the Europeans and the Americans didn’t hear
the Russians. The problem was that they simply didn’t believe them —
they didn’t take the Russians seriously. They had heard the Russians
say things for many years. They did not understand three things.
First, that the Russians had reached the end of their rope. Second,
that Russian military capability was not what it had been in 1999.
Third, and most important, NATO, the Americans and the Europeans did
not recognize that they were making political decisions that they
could not support militarily.
For the Russians, the transformation of NATO from a military alliance
into a regional United Nations was the problem. The West argued that
NATO was no longer just a military alliance but a political arbitrator
for the region. If NATO does not like Serbian policies in Kosovo, it
can — at its option and in opposition to U.N. rulings — intervene.
It could intervene in Serbia and it intended to expand deep into the
former Soviet Union. NATO thought that because it was now a political
arbiter encouraging regimes to reform and not just a war-fighting
system, Russian fears would actually be assuaged. To the contrary, it
was Russia’s worst nightmare. Compensating for all this was the fact
that NATO had neglected its own military power. Now, Russia could do
something about it.
At the beginning of this discourse, we explained that the underlying
issues behind the Russo-Georgian war went deep into geopolitics and
that it could not be understood without understanding Kosovo. It
wasn’t everything, but it was the single most significant event behind
all of this. The war of 1999 was the framework that created the war of
The problem for NATO was that it was expanding its political reach and
claims while contracting its military muscle. The Russians were
expanding their military capability (after 1999 they had no place to
go but up) and the West didn’t notice. In 1999, the Americans and
Europeans made political decisions backed by military force. In 2008,
in Kosovo, they made political decisions without sufficient military
force to stop a Russian response. Either they underestimated their
adversary or — even more amazingly — they did not see the Russians
as adversaries despite absolutely clear statements the Russians had
made. No matter what warning the Russians gave, or what the history of
the situation was, the West couldn’t take the Russians seriously.
It began in 1999 with war in Kosovo and it ended in 2008 with the
independence of Kosovo. When we study the history of the coming
period, the war in Kosovo will stand out as a turning point. Whatever
the humanitarian justification and the apparent ease of victory, it
set the stage for the rise of Putin and the current and future crises.