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.