Moscow’s August 26 decision to recognize the independence of Georgia’s separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia demonstrates the arrogant folly of that position. In just a matter of months, the Kosovo precedent has backfired on the United States and generated dangerous tensions between Russia and the West.
It is difficult to imagine how Washington and its NATO allies could have more egregiously mishandled the Kosovo situation. Western policy has been a debacle from its beginnings in the early 1990s. When Belgrade attempted to suppress the secessionist campaign by the Albanian majority in Kosovo, NATO intervened with air strikes to compel Serbia to relinquish control of the province to an international occupation force. NATO’s actions ignored Moscow’s vehement objections and showed contempt for Russia’s long‐standing interests in the Balkans. The Clinton administration also bypassed the UN Security Council (and, hence, Russia’s veto) to launch that military operation, exhibiting further disdain for Russia’s prerogatives as a permanent member of the Council and a major power in the international system.
Russian leaders fumed, but Moscow was too weak to do anything but issue futile protests. Ultimately, the NATO powers offered Moscow the sop of a belated UN resolution that professed to recognize Serbia’s territorial integrity, which included Kosovo, even though that province had been put under international control. How much that resolution was worth became apparent in 2007 and early 2008 when the United States and the major European Union governments pressed for Kosovo’s independence without Belgrade’s consent and—once again—without UN Security Council authorization. Moscow warned at the time that such action would set a dangerous international precedent; countries as diverse as China, India, Indonesia, Spain and Greece expressed the same concern. Most ominously, Russian officials specifically cited Abkhazia and South Ossetia as places where the Kosovo precedent could apply.
Russia has now demonstrated that two can play the game of using military force against another country to detach discontented ethnic enclaves. And the United States and NATO are not able to do much about it.