In Russia even more than in America, �Kosovo� rhymes with �I
told you so.�
Many Americans don�t realize that the former Serbian
province of Kosovo, which broke away in 1999 after US-led NATO forces bombed
Serbia for 78 days, helped set the stage for the recent conflict between Russia
and neighboring Georgia.
But Russian leaders, who like most leaders care intensely
about what happens at their borders (Georgia) and to their longtime allies
(Serbia), warned earlier this year that support for Kosovo�s independence would
set a precedent that could trigger separatist conflicts in places like Georgia.
It was a warning that Washington and several of its European
allies foolishly, even recklessly, failed to heed.
In negotiations over the final status of Kosovo, which had
been under United Nations jurisdiction since 1999, Serbia promised the province
autonomy but not independence.
While many observers questioned Kosovo�s readiness for
independence, given corruption in its civil administration and the murderous
campaign of ethnic cleansing waged by Albanian nationalists against Serbs in
their midst, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence on February 17.
Although Kosovo�s move arguably violated UN Security Council
Resolution 1244, which recognized Serbia�s ultimate sovereignty, many NATO
countries including the United States sided with Kosovo.
�The Kosovars are now independent,� declared President Bush.
Humiliated by NATO�s military intervention in 1999, Russia
now chafed at the political intervention of NATO countries in favor of Kosovo�s
secession, which Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned as �immoral and
Russian leaders warned that unilateral recognition of
Kosovo�s independence would open a �Pandora�s box� by appearing to support
similar claims by other separatist movements in some 200 regions of the world.
The Russian Foreign Ministry declared, �Those who are
considering supporting separatism should understand what dangerous consequences
their actions threaten to have for world order, international stability and the
authority of the U.N. Security Council�s decisions that took decades to build.�
Outside of NATO, many countries sided with Russia�s
statement of principles.
Surprisingly, one of the most outspoken was Russia�s hostile
southern neighbor, Georgia. And the reason wasn�t hard for experts to fathom.
As Richard Weitz at the Hudson Institute noted at the time,
Russia could seize upon Kosovo as a precedent for fomenting separatist
movements in the former Soviet republics, including South Ossetia�s drive for
independence from Georgia in the Caucasus.
Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at
the Royal United Services Institute, warned similarly, �if the Kosovo precedent
is used, the Russians can also recognise ethnic Russian enclaves in places such
as Georgia or Moldova. What�s good for Kosovo is good for other places as
Their unheeded warnings have just come to pass, at the
expense of thousands of dead and wounded.
Just as NATO justified its intervention in 1999 as a
humanitarian defense of Kosovo�s ethnic Albanians against Serbian atrocities,
so Russia said it came to the defense of South Ossetia, which suffered terrible
atrocities at Georgian hands in the early 1990s, after Georgian troops shelled
its capital earlier this month.
In addition to Kosovo, Russia can justify its intervention
on behalf of South Ossetia by pointing to any number of other precedents set by
the United States: the Bush administration�s doctrine of preemption, its
invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, its silence in the face of Israel�s invasion
of Lebanon, and many more.
What difference do all these precedents and broken
By selectively turning principles into propagandist slogans
for scoring points, the United States no longer occupies the political high
ground. Washington�s lectures sound like hectoring, not sincere admonitions
that could sway international public opinion and restrain Russian actions.
In short, by squandering its moral authority, the United
States has unilaterally disarmed itself of �soft power� that was once one of
our greatest weapons. And Kosovo was one of the fields upon which the United
States laid down its moral arms.
J. Victor Marshall is
a research fellow at The Independent Institute.