Showdown in Pristina

Showdown in Pristina

The Russian contingent that declared its sovereignty over Pristina’s airport is a stark sign of how deeply the Kosovo war has eroded the already deteriorating US-Russian relationship.


The Russian contingent that declared its sovereignty over Pristina’s airport is a stark sign of how deeply the Kosovo war has eroded the already deteriorating US-Russian relationship. Although we still don’t know who made the decision to send in the Russian troops, Boris Yeltsin seems to have signed on after the fact, if not before. What we don’t know is whether Yeltsin was convinced of the wisdom of the action or whether it was in effect imposed on him.

Whatever the origin of the move, the fact and symbolism of those 200 Russian troops racing across the border from Bosnia, and the reactions their arrival provoked in both Moscow and the West, show how much more complex and fragile is the Kosovo accord than Washington or Brussels will admit. This is not about “some political confusions in Moscow,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed. Russia’s bifurcated response to the airport incident–on the one hand, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s surprise at what he first termed a “mistake,” on the other, the promotion of the brigade’s commander–underscores a political instability in Moscow largely denied by Washington during the war.

The US government’s relations are now almost entirely with the sclerotic Yeltsin regime, whose support is limited domestically to a handful of Russian business oligarchs and which is consumed with the struggle over succession, power and property. Russia’s dramatic pre-emptive move into Kosovo makes it clear that Yeltsin’s and Chernomyrdin’s cooperation with Washington had little or no support among the political and military elite. Senior military officials and others called the Kosovo settlement traitorous (“a Balkan Munich”). Kosovo has brought the military to the forefront of Russian politics in alarming fashion. That’s true whether the generals acted unilaterally in Pristina or Yeltsin took the initiative in order to pacify them.

Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin saved NATO from a protracted, costly and destabilizing ground war by brokering the G-8 peace deal. But they did it against the current of Russian anti-Americanism, which is at a higher level than during the cold war. In the context of an economic crisis that leaves Russia at the mercy of the IMF, the Kosovo war was perceived as the latest in a series of humiliations aimed at Moscow, from NATO’s initial override of the UN Security Council through the denial of a Russian sector in postwar Kosovo. Indeed, while NATO privately compromised with Slobodan Milosevic in the Kosovo negotiations, President Clinton and NATO leaders were publicly applauding the Kremlin for endorsing alliance demands as if Chernomyrdin were little more than an errand boy–which served to intensify criticism of Yeltsin’s regime.

Clinton’s repeated claim that the war has made the strategic partnership with Russia stronger is nonsense. In reality, pro-Western forces have been undercut, the military emboldened and disarmament set back for years to come. In a move largely overlooked by a Western press focused on Belgrade, in the midst of the war the Russian National Security Council approved the modernization of all nuclear warheads, including new low-yield tactical warheads. The derailing of nuclear arms control is one of the gravest long-term costs of the Kosovo war. And there are now signs that the Yeltsin government, which had been urging cuts in the military budget, is preparing to increase expenditures.

The war will resonate, too, in Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 1999 and 2000: not on the grounds of ethnic solidarity with Serbia but from a shared sense of national humiliation at the hands of the West. If a Russian candidate chooses to play the Kosovo card, NATO’s war may have the perverse effect of subduing a conventionally armed Milosevic in Belgrade but ushering in a Milosevic-like nationalist in a nuclear-armed Russia.

The seemingly small confrontation at the Pristina airport reflects fundamental unresolved issues in US foreign policy and, secondarily, NATO policy. Foremost among these is the US role in the world–unilateral superpower or partner/builder of stable multilateral institutions–and what role NATO will play, post-Kosovo, now that it’s transformed itself from a defensive alliance into a regional policeman. These issues must be raised in the US presidential campaign now under way.

In particular, the Russian soldiers in Pristina symbolize the limitations of US power. It is important to recognize that, far from being marginal to a Balkan peace, Russian participation is crucial in bringing about long-term reconciliation and stability. This is not merely a matter of a peacekeeping “zone of responsibility” or sector but the essential politics of the Balkans. At press time, Russian and NATO officials were meeting in Helsinki to strike some compromise, even as more Russian troops made their way into Kosovo. To deny Russia substantive participation in Kosovo under UN command and make not only the war but the peacekeeping an exercise in NATO unilateralism is to risk even more instability in the Balkans and in Moscow. The alternative to collaboration is a succession of struggles in which Balkan statelets and aspiring nationalities turn west or east for patronage, reshaping their local wars into surrogate battles between a nationalist Kremlin and a rogue NATO.

In the short run the region needs rebuilding and refugee assistance across ethnic lines, substantial funding for UN peacekeeping and other nonmilitary measures. In the longer run, economic assistance, war crimes investigation and democracy building must be devolved through NGOs, regional political institutions and the UN, which was created and is sustained by the world community to serve as an alternative to the cruelty of an international system based on big-stick diplomacy. Such a policy requires more vision than the Clinton Administration has yet shown, but the original script, based on the marginalization and further humiliation of Russia could lead to larger confrontations between the two nuclear powers, for which the Pristina airport incident may be just an audition.

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