A Return to Kosovo

By George Friedman


Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush will meet July 1-2 at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The two will have several meaty items on their plate, including the planned U.S. missile defense shield in Central Europe and Russia's threat to withdraw from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The main dish, however, will be Kosovo -- again.

This issue has been on the table since 1999, when the United States and its NATO allies, angered over Serbian behavior in Kosovo, ignored Russian objections and waged a 60-day air war against Yugoslavia. The Clinton administration charged that the Serbians were either conducting genocide against the Kosovar Albanians or were on the verge of it. Washington demanded the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo and, when that failed to happen, it commenced the air campaign.

It is important to recall that the Kosovo war, like the war in Iraq, did not have U.N. sanction. Russia, in particular, opposed the war, thus making U.N. Security Council passage of an enabling resolution impossible. Russia and Serbia are historical allies and under the guise of "fellow Slav," Moscow has promoted itself as Serbia's protector. It is an excuse Russia has used to get involved in many conflicts, including World War I. In 1999, however, the United States did not take Russia seriously when it considered how to handle Serbia. In 1999, under Boris Yeltsin, Russia didn't need to be taken seriously.

The war, however, did not go as expected. The Serbs did not capitulate after the first few days of bombardment, and neither the United States nor NATO was prepared to mount a ground attack into Kosovo. After two months of bombings, a diplomatic initiative was launched via Moscow, whose channels into Belgrade remained active since the Serbs retained some trust in the Russians. In a complex round of diplomacy, the Serbs agreed to withdraw their forces from Kosovo as long as the occupying force included a substantial Russian contingent.

In fact, the Russians sent a contingent of troops from their base in Bosnia through Serbia to Kosovo, arriving at the airport in Pristina as the bombing ended. Rather than integrate the Russian forces into the NATO force in Kosovo, the peacekeeping presence known as KFOR, NATO marginalized them.

From the Russians' point of view, they had been double-crossed. They had gotten the Serbs to agree to a withdrawal on the proviso that the Russians would be a substantial part of KFOR. This was crucial because it was understood that they would guarantee the one part of the agreement that was a dealmaker to the Serbs. Serbia would withdraw from Kosovo, but it would not give up sovereignty. When the Americans and Europeans bypassed the Russians, Russian credibility, as low as it was, plummeted even more.

In a sense, Kosovo broke the back of Yeltsin's strategy. The Russians perceived the motherland as a poor but powerful country, one that not only had become poorer, but also was treated with contempt by the United States. Russian nationalists -- even of the mildest sort -- recoiled at what they saw as the American double-cross. Many issues sank Yeltsin, but Kosovo was critical. One of Putin's missions, then, has been to rebuild Russia's international standing.

Eight years after the war, KFOR continues to occupy Kosovo, though Europe and the United States are trying to bring the conflict to a conclusion by granting Kosovo independence. Their argument is that Kosovo, whatever its historical significance to Serbs, now has a majority of Albanians. In addition, the Albanians had been mistreated by the Serbs, so they cannot be returned to Serb control. Therefore, the only reasonable thing is for Kosovo to be granted independence.

The Serbs are intensely opposed to losing a province permanently. For the Russians, there are a number of issues. First, Putin wants to demonstrate to Europe and the United States that they cannot simply ignore understandings reached with Russia. The Russian opposition to Kosovo's independence was made clear eight years ago -- and it remains clear now. Second, the Russians want to demonstrate that alliance with them has meaning as they attempt to expand their sphere of influence. Until now, their successes have been confined to the former Soviet Union. They want a showdown over the interests of a Balkan ally simply to demonstrate their loyalty and effectiveness -- as well as the limits of American and European power. Finally, they want to expand their influence in the Balkans, an area of historical interest to the Russians.

On June 24, Putin attended an energy conference of southeast European leaders. While there, he made it clear that Russia is prepared to expand capital investment in power networks and pipelines in the Balkans. He also supported the creation of an "energy ring" in the Black Sea region that might serve to define the parameters of a common European power grid. That was the carrot. The stick was a warning that the Russians will not accept an independent Kosovo.

Europe just wants Kosovo off its plate. It is uneasy about extending the Muslim reach in the Balkans and it is concerned about the principle of changing borders based on ethnic makeup. In Europe, Spain's Basque region has had a separatist movement for years, while there are predominantly Hungarian regions in both Slovakia and Romania. The Russians, however, are most uneasy about the principle because if Kosovo is given independence, why not Chechnya?

The Europeans and Americans want to wrap up the Kosovo issue as soon as possible. For Bush, who has been portrayed as rabidly anti-Islamic, having a pro-Muslim policy somewhere in the world has obvious benefit. Albania, as demonstrated by Bush's recent visit, is the one place where he can gather sympathetic Muslim crowds -- and he is not about to give it up. As for the Europeans, they want to let go of the tar baby and move on.

By visiting Albania, therefore, Bush has signaled Putin that he is committed to Kosovar independence. The point the Bush administration is missing, however, is that rather than being deterred by Bush's show of commitment, Putin sees it as an opportunity to embarrass Bush and assert Russian power. The fact that Bush has publicly committed himself on Kosovo makes it sweeter for Putin. He wants to force Bush to back down on an issue on which the American president has staked himself publicly. That serves Putin's interests much more than winning on a marginal issue.

Putin has a number of options.

Diplomatically, he can veto any resolutions presented to the Security Council. There is diplomatic talk that, absent a new resolution on Kosovo, Kosovar independence would take place under EU supervision. Russia could not veto that, of course, but Russia does have the natural gas transmission card to play. Germany and other EU members are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and Russia has cut those supplies for short periods of time in the past. There is no reason to think Moscow would not do it again. The European Union knows this -- and is becoming fractured by it.

In fact, we believe the Russians would cut supplies if provoked. Kosovo really is that big of an issue to them. If they gave in on this, all of Putin's efforts to re-establish Russia as a great power would be undermined. Putin wants to remind Germany in particular -- but also other former Soviet satellites -- that thwarting Russia carries a price. If the European Union were to unilaterally act against Russian wishes, Putin would have to choose between appearing as if he is all talk and no action, and acting. Putin would choose the latter.

Putin also has a military option. Contrary to popular belief, the Russians retain increasingly effective military units. Five years ago, the idea that Russia's military was a joke wasn't nearly as true as many wanted to believe. It certainly is not true now. The old Red Army is dysfunctional, but the Russian military retains an excellent core, particularly in its airborne regiments. The Russians could fly a regiment of troops to Belgrade, use Serbian trucks to move to the Kosovar frontier and threaten to move into Kosovo to take their place in KFOR.

To do this, they would have to fly through Romanian or Hungarian airspace. They might be denied overflight privileges, but 1), the Russians might not ask permission and 2), would the Romanians or Hungarians try to shoot down Russian transports? They have no appetite for that kind of confrontation. Assume, then, that the troops reached the Kosovo border and crossed over. Would KFOR troops open fire on them? It is doubtful that the Europeans want a shooting war with the Russians.

Challenging Kosovo's independence militarily also would allow Russia to call NATO defense capabilities into question, which could leave the Europeans even more fractured. Do not assume that the Russians would not dare try such a move. Our view is that the Russians are itching for an opportunity to confront the West -- and win. In the case of Kosovo, should they choose to make an issue of it, they have the diplomatic, economic and military options to force the West to back down. Condoleezza Rice has said that Kosovo will never be returned to Serbian rule. Putin would love to demonstrate that it doesn't matter what the U.S. secretary of state wants.

This is going to be a key issue at the Bush-Putin summit. Although he wants this matter settled, it appears Bush will try to find a formula for putting it off, such as setting up a negotiating structure between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo that could go on for years. Putin could probably live with that, as long as Russia is given a dominant role in those negotiations and as long as the decision is seen as a public concession to Putin.

This is an asymmetric situation. Bush does not really care about Kosovo or Serbia. The Europeans would not give up a day of natural gas supplies over Albanian rights in Kosovo. Russia itself doesn't care much about Kosovo. But it does care about reasserting its international power. The Kosovo issue gives Putin the perfect launchpad to start rolling back the West and reasserting his own power.

If Putin can win on this issue, a range of comfortable assumptions by Central and Eastern Europeans about Russia's limits, as well as German and French assumptions about the future of Europe, will be reversed. Putin intends to be taken seriously in international affairs and Kosovo is the issue he will stand on. It is not clear whether the United States or Europe understands just how serious Putin is on Kosovo.

This report republished with attribution to Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at www.stratfor.com.