Kosova Case

Humanitarian Intervention or Competing for Vital Interests


By Cafo Boga


It is a widely accepted notion that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened in Kosova for humanitarian reasons in 1999 to protect the Albanian population from atrocities committed by the army of rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) under the directives of Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic. The purpose of this essay is to examine whether there were other factors at play that contributed to NATO’s decision. While facts may suggest that several actors were involved to promote their own vital interests in the Balkans, for brevity sake, this report only analyzes the most relevant ones. But what is considered a vital interest that would prompt an intervention?
“Vital interest” is an elusive term that, when used in the context of outlining a foreign policy, is usually referred to as “national security interest”; however, it is generally a vaguely defined term. In a classical sense, security refers to tranquility and freedom from care, or what Cicero termed the absence of anxiety upon which a fulfilled life depends (Liotta & Owen, 2006). Traditionally, the realist concept of security has been narrowly interpreted as the protection of a state’s territorial integrity from external aggression and of its vital national interests as defined in the context of foreign policy. Under these interpretations, the state was the sole guarantor of their own security. Realists also believe that security extends downward from within a state to its citizens and that, conversely, strong states extend upward in relation to other states and in this way influence the security of the entire international system (Ibid). The narrow realist interpretation of security did not take into consideration other potential vulnerabilities that threaten people’s daily lives, such as disease, hunger, crime, and other social, political, economic, and environmental hazards.
The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era that brought the need for a conceptual shift toward human security. A report issued by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 1994 argued that human security requires long-term planning and demands protection from chronic threats such as famine and environmental hazards, as well as immediate intervention in the case of sudden disaster or aggression. The report outlines seven factors that can contribute to human security threats: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security (Liotta & Owen, 2006). While the official definition of “national security interest” may vary between countries, it would be safe to define the “vital interest” of a country as a development that could directly and concretely affect the physical security, liberty, or economic and political wellbeing of its citizens today or in the future. Under such broad interpretation that includes political and economic interests, anything that undermines such interests would be considered a threat to that state’s national security. Protecting vital national security interests is a complex undertaking that needs constant adjusting due to internal and external circumstances. It is also a geopolitical undertaking to secure strategic places thus; it is not surprising that Kosova and the Balkans represent a vital interest to so many stakeholders.

Historical Background

The evolution of ethnic and territorial conflict in Kosova must be viewed in a historical context in order to form a proper perspective. The disintegration of former Yugoslavia uncovered many hidden secrets about this artificial and mosaic country, including the truth about Kosova and its past. An ancient Illyrian land of Dardania, Kosova had been occupied by the Roman and Byzantine empires for centuries and subsequently by the medieval Serbian Nemanjic dynasty. Medieval Serbia reached its peak of prominence when Tsar Dusan the Mighty took advantage of the Byzantine Civil War (1341-1347) and doubled the size of his kingdom, seizing territories to the south at the expense of Byzantium and conquering almost the entirety of modern-day Kosova, Albania, and Greece. It was during this time that Serbia, as the territorial head of Orthodox Church, left its religious and cultural mark on Kosova by building a collection of churches and other sites that Serbs now refer to as the cradle of their civilization.
After Tsar Dusan’s death in 1355, Serbia broke up into plethora of dynastic principalities, making itself vulnerable to the imposition of Ottoman supremacy (Banac, 1984). The Serbian empire eventually disintegrated following its decisive defeat by the Ottomans at the famous Battle of Kosova in 1389. As a result, Kosova became part of the Ottoman Empire and remained as one of its four Albanian vilayets until 1912 when, under the blessing of the major powers at that time, it was again occupied by Serbia. It remained as part of Serbia in 1918 when the previously independent kingdoms of Serbia, Montenegro, and the South Slav territories in areas formerly subject to the Austro-Hungarian Empire were ceded to the newly formed state of the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes ruled by the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty. This state was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.
Kosova was not the only Albanian territory lost in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires; following their respective disintegrations, approximately two-thirds of Albanian lands were allocated to Greece and the Slavic states (Guy, 2012). There were many attempts to ethnically cleanse Kosova of its Albanian population through forced emigration or the forced assimilation of those remaining into Slavic culture by eradicating Albanians’ cultural and historical past, and prohibiting Albanian students to be taught in their native language (Ibid). But despite these attempts, Kosova was never fully integrated into Slavic society and remained predominantly Albanian.
Following the Second World War, Yugoslavia emerged as a communist country under the leadership of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, although it soon separated itself from Soviet influence. Yugoslavia was a federal state consisting of six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) and two autonomous provinces within Serbia (Kosova and Vojvodina). Under Tito’s leadership during the Cold War, Yugoslavia served as a conduit between the East and West. Tito, who was also the founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (states that were not part Soviet or Western Bloc) carefully navigated through the troubled waters between East and West by maintaining a status quo with the Soviets and establishing good relationships with the West. He would utilize those relationships to ensure Yugoslavia’s security and for maximizing its economic and political benefits. All the while, he managed to maintain Yugoslavia’s non-aligned status.
To prevent tempting the Soviet Union to occupy Yugoslavia (as it did Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1991), the United States and other Western powers unequivocally supported Yugoslavia’s unity, independence, and territorial integrity throughout the Cold War. For the West, Yugoslavia’s brand of communism—a self-governing socialist system with a market-oriented, self-directed economy—set an example by which other countries of the Soviet Bloc could follow in order to leave their more rigid communist systems and the constraints of the Soviet Union and open up to Western influence and benefits. In exchange for Yugoslav neutrality and rejection of the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia had special access to Western credits to keep its economy afloat and the country strong.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall brought the end of the Cold War and with that many changes in the region. By that time President Tito had died and Yugoslavia no longer played an important geopolitical role in its region. A new world order was in the making and Yugoslavia became a relic of the past mistakes of international community, riddled with economic, political, and ethnic problems. The country also posed serious human rights concerns. With changes in geopolitical and other circumstances, Yugoslavia was no longer able to secure economic assistance from the United States or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to support its much-needed economic reforms. Its effort to join the Council of Europe was blocked because of serious domestic issues exacerbated by animosities of Serbian ultra-nationalist Slobodan Milosevic, who had just come onto the political scene.
The continued deterioration of Yugoslavia’s federal government and the risk of it being barred from international support were amplified by the progress of other states belonging to the former Eastern Bloc. The newly independent states in Central and Eastern Europe were redefining their own national identities, reorganizing themselves pursuant to democratic principles, and appealing for inclusion in Western institutions on the basis of historical and cultural criteria. This historical and cultural divide made its way through Yugoslavia and strengthened the separatist arguments being made by Croatia and Slovenia that were both keen on being integrated into the new pan-European political structures and eager to avoid being dragged down by Yugoslavia’s uncertain political future and dire economic conditions. As the newly emerging Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic was steadily increasing his power and influence in Yugoslavia, the situation in Kosova was getting worse with no turnaround in sight. In order to advance himself politically and gain support for a powerful Serbia, he utilized a strategy of confrontational nationalism, which eventually brought down the federal government. Almost immediately, he antagonized Kosova by stripping it of its constitution and placing it under tight Serbian control.
In this context, Yugoslavia’s already weakened federal government suffered a fatal blow when the Communist Party, its main ideological foundation, collapsed in 1990. The political elites of the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared their right to sovereign powers and argued for either looser federal arrangements or altogether separation. The United States and most European states publicly declared their continued support for the federation of Yugoslavia and its territorial integrity, with the exception of leading politicians in Austria and Germany who were publicly sympathetic to Slovenia and Croatia and encouraged them to secede. By the end of 2000, only two republics, Serbia and Montenegro, remained within the federation, which was undergoing further disintegration. Montenegro was seeking greater autonomy and Serbia had lost control of the province of Kosova. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, which lasted more than a decade, was a bloody and protracted one. Starting in 1991, Slovenian and Croatian independence was marked by armed conflict. Over the next four years, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina took center stage. Then in the late 1990s, armed conflict in Kosova led to a humanitarian tragedy.
Kosovar Albanians, under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, initially responded to Serbian suppression with passive resistance. But in 1991 the Parliament of Kosova declared Kosova independent of Serbia and started developing its own governmental institutions. The hatred and violence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosova was so deeply rooted that Albanians, who for decades endured all forms of oppression, felt the time was right to separate from Serbia (Koppe, 2008). Albanians established a parallel government, and the most radical groups joined together to form the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). Milosevic reacted harshly by using the Yugoslav Army to attack the KLA and ethnically cleanse Kosova of all Albanians. Thousands were killed, including women and children; properties were seized or destroyed, forcing the mass migration and expulsion of Albanians from Kosova. The situation became so dire that it ultimately culminated in NATO’s bombing of Serbian military targets in Kosova and Serbia proper.

NATO Intervention

On March 24, 1999, NATO initiated “Operation Allied Force,” an airborne campaign against Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). The mission was purportedly undertaken to prevent Slobodan Milosevic and his regime from committing genocide against the ethnic Albanian majority in the province of Kosova. The operation was ordered after the Serbian regime defied the international autonomy plan for Kosova and began forcefully expelling the Albanian population from the province. When “Operation Allied Force” began, some observers from NATO members thought the mission was not well planned and ineffective. Other nations including Russia and China thought it was illegal and demanded that NATO stop military actions immediately. To the contrary, NATO escalated its air campaign to include targets within Serbia proper, which finally brought its desired aim. On June 3, Milosevic capitulated and the Yugoslav army withdrew from Kosova, allowing NATO forces to occupy Kosova. The air campaign had lasted 11 weeks and Kosovar Albanians jubilantly received their liberators. For the Albanian population of Kosova, the NATO intervention was the best possible outcome that they could ever expect. But was the intervention in Kosova mainly for the humanitarian reasons or were there other interests at play? Scholars and political pundits still debate this question.

Humanitarian Intervention Debate

As previously stated it is widely accepted that NATO’s intent was to counter the ongoing oppression of the Albanian population in Kosova by the Serbian regime. NATO leaders and others repeatedly offered a humanitarian rationale as the main reason for the intervention. Surprisingly, even a leader of a Slavic state, Czech President Vaclav Havel, put it this way: “If one can say of any war that it is ethical, or that it is being waged for ethical reasons, then it is true of this war” (Teson, 2009). In the United Nations Security Council, which was paralyzed by the threat of a Russian veto, member governments were divided over the issue. Governments opposed to the intervention either denied its validity under the international law or questioned NATO’s motive, calling it an act of aggression. Others were cautiously supportive of the intervention. International organizations, including human rights groups, did not overly condemn it, although many showed concern for NATO’s acting without the Security Council’s authorization (Ibid).
Reactions from among legal scholars also varied. Of those who believed that the intervention was unlawful, some thought it was also morally or politically wrong, while others thought that institutional structures should be reformed to be more responsive to humanitarian crises. Another group believed that an intervention might have been illegal on technical grounds but still morally appropriate. Scholars other than legal academics by and large found the intervention to be justified. What’s interesting from the whole debate, is the notion that the Kosova incident itself marks a move toward a global appreciation for human rights in foreign affairs and the formation of customary rule for humanitarian intervention, thus further carving away at the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty. Up to this point, international law had upheld rigidly the notion of non-intervention on the basis of territorial integrity. But the interpretation of justice in today’s society begs for intervention in states where a government has forfeited its legitimacy by committing human rights violations or other atrocities against its own people. How justice can be served in humanitarian cases remains an elusive concept that international laws must develop.
A central point of contention concerning the Kosova intervention remains the fact that NATO was unable to procure UN Security Council authorization; the established procedure by which to approve the use of force proved ineffectual in this case. That raises a question as to who has stronger legitimacy in authorizing humanitarian interventions: NATO, which can be interpreted as an alliance of nations committed to promoting and preserving human rights and democracy; or the UN Security Council, which was formed pursuant to the UN Charter and is comprised of permanent members who each have veto power and non-permanent members, the credentials and character of which sometimes leave a lot to be desired (Teson, 2009). Moreover, neither the United Nations nor the Security Council is a democratic institution and therefore not a most reliable guardian of human rights. On the other hand, NATO is primarily a military alliance and, while it can be an important tool for preserving peace or bringing hostilities to an end, it should not become the only organization capable of intervening for humanitarian reasons.
Politicians who supported the intervention in Kosova see it as a concept of new internationalism in a more globalized world in which the brutal repression of ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that the conflict in Kosova and its ultimate resolution were also the result of business as usual for the powerful stakeholders competing in the region, part of an old design to protect vital national interests. Tracey Kuperus of Gordon College summarizes this point in her article “Kosovo and Rwanda: Selective Interventionism”:
“The West’s response to humanitarian concerns in Kosovo were reinforced by strategic interests in Europe’s future and the NATO alliance. If the West were truly committed to the creation of a world system where respect for humanity was of the highest order, we would take notice of other regions of the world where regimes have engaged in heinous crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the West has ignored many of these cases” (Kuperus, 1999).
It is true that in 1994 in Rwanda, approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the most horrific genocide since the Second World War and another two million fled country as refugees. The international community not only failed to respond effectively to this crisis, but it took more than a year for the United States to even admit that genocide had occurred. The key difference between Rwanda and Kosova is that Kosova’s conflict and geographic location affected more prominent nations’ security and interests than Rwanda’s.
NATO’s intervention in Kosova also had a military implication for the United States and other members of the alliance; it completed the process that started in Bosnia of transforming NATO from a defensive alliance to an “on-call” SWAT team service, in which the United States would direct military operations. From its inception, NATO’s purpose has been to defend the borders of its members against external threats, mainly the Soviet Union. By the end of the Cold War, NATO was an alliance in search of a purpose in the evolving new world order, and peacekeeping presented it with an opportunity to justify its existence. The UN Security Council sanctioned humanitarian intervention in Bosnia, while NATO’s military campaign in Kosova set a new precedent: It was the first time the alliance acted “out-of-area” without Security Council authorization and in opposition to a sovereign country. If NATO was now able to intervene in Kosova, it could theoretically intervene anywhere around the globe—a rather portentous prospect (Dempsey, 1998).

The United States Perspective

The U.S. policy on Kosova evolved over time from relying on noninterventionist diplomacy to eventually advocating use of force based on strategic, practical, and humanitarian reasons to combat Serbian aggression. Ironically, at the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. policy on Kosova was in the context of former Yugoslavia as drafted by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and his team of supposedly Balkan experts. The policy was at best in favor of Yugoslav federation, contradictory to facts on the ground, and counter-productive to resolving the unraveling process in Yugoslavia. The aggravated situation for Albanians living in Kosova was not initially a primary concern of the United States, as evidenced by the absence of Kosova at the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995, which ended the conflict in Bosnia and established the present-day internal configuration of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fighting in Kosova was considered an internal conflict between the secessionist KLA—which at one time was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department—and the armed forces of the rump Yugoslavia. When the United States realized that the KLA was getting support from outside allies like Germany and Austria and that the resolution of Kosova within Serbian context was no longer possible, the policy was swiftly changed to fit the reality on the ground.
Citing a massacre of Albanian civilians by Serbian forces in the village of Racak in January 1999, the U.S. government and NATO allies officially intervened. Meeting in Rambouillet, France, that February and March, they drafted a “peace accord,” which offered the KLA de facto independence for Kosova immediately, and de jure independence in three years. During that interval, Kosova would be administered as a NATO protectorate. Notwithstanding the sequence of events that would follow, the immediate fate of Kosova was officially sealed at Rambouillet.
Following the Rambouillet agreement, U.S. policy toward Kosova became more transparent and pro-Kosova. At the Biennial Convention of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees on March 24, 1999, President Bill Clinton stated that the United States has strategic, practical, and humanitarian reasons for combating Serbian aggression in Kosova. Strategically, he said, the United States needs a politically stable and undivided Europe to help preserve his country’s enduring democratic values and open economy. “If we have learned anything after the Cold War and our memories of World War II, it is that if our country is going to be prosperous and secure, we need a Europe that is safe, secure, free, united, a good partner” (Garamone, 1999). In making the case for intervention, he said that intervention in Kosova was “morally right and in the vital interest of the United States” (Ibid). Elaborating further on practical reasons why the Kosova situation must be resolved now, Clinton went on to say that simply ignoring it means that someone else would have to resolve it later at a much higher cost of human lives and money. Referring to the much delayed NATO intervention in Bosnia, Clinton said the world should learn a lesson that “if you don’t stand up to brutality and the killing of innocent people, you invite the people to do more of it…We learned that firmness can save lives and stop armies” (Ibid).

The German Factor

So what was Germany’s role in preparing for the sequence of events in Kosova? In 1991 a delegation of German Bandstand visited Kosova for the first time in order to talk to Albanian nationalist leaders. Germany’s Yugoslav policy differed widely from that of the United States. As the only remaining superpower in the world, the United States had an interest in maintaining international order. As former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Joseph S. Nye once wrote: “In a world where there are some 200 states but many thousands of overlapping entities that might eventually make a claim to nationhood, blind promotion of self-determination would have highly problematic consequences” (Kuntzel, 2000). Germany on the other hand, in seeking to expand its own influence in the Balkans and change the international order, did not share those views. Former German Defense Secretary Robert Scholz explained:
“The aim of maintaining ‘stability’ in Europe seems to be the most dangerous one. There will not be any stability, which is able to maintain peace, if individual nations are held prisoner in unwanted and unnatural state organizations, which have been imposed upon them” and that accordingly, German foreign policy has “constantly persisted in actively advocating a universal right of self-determination” (Ibid).
German foreign policy had a specific bearing on the evolution of Kosova’s independence. In 1995 Germany and Albania signed a common declaration of principle. This is rarely mentioned as a significant event but it was important because it promised to find a “solution to the Kosovo question” by advocating the right of self-determination for Kosovar Albanians, which meant the right to secede from Yugoslavia (Kuntzel, 2000). The declaration was an advance notice to Albanians in Kosova, similar to that given in 1991 to Croatia and Slovenia. In the years that followed, Germany lived up to its promises by financially and logistically supporting those who sought to establish Kosova’s independence by helping establish alternate governing institutions and education and medical systems for Kosovar Albanains, hence systematically separating the Albanian population from Serbia. Furthermore, Germany was secretly involved in helping the KLA since its inception in 1996. An article in the daily newspaper The European describes it this way: “German civil and military intelligence services have been involved in training and equipping the rebels with arms of cementing German influence in the Balkan area” (Ibid). During those early years of the KLA when Germany unilaterally supported their secession movement, “The U.S. government is not all happy with Germany’s policy in Kosovo” wrote the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeutung in 1997 (Ibid).
After civil unrest in Albania and the destruction of Albanian army arsenals in 1997, the KLA armed itself in order to start a large-scale war. These developments led to a counterattack by the Serbian police against the KLA and civilians. Atrocities committed in Racak moved Kosova into the media spotlight and into the focus of NATO deliberations. Although the situation was worsening fast, the Clinton Administration was still uncertain about how to deal with the crisis. In the meantime, Germany continued to put pressure on the United States to change course and take a leadership role in action against Yugoslavia. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, and dominating voices within the U.S. government still preferred to follow a less confrontational policy. Germany went ahead and publically revealed its Kosova policy, while the United States’ haphazard approach and ineffectual diplomacy delayed the ultimate NATO action and caused many fatalities on both sides of the conflict.
Policy differences between Germany and the other NATO members, including the United States, continued through 1998. They became even more pronounced when under the United Nations, a concentrated effort was made to formulate a plan for sending 7,000 soldiers along the Albanian border to cut off the KLA from supplying itself with arms and ammunitions. Germany strongly objected to the idea; then-Defense Minister Volker Ruhe said: “You cannot resolve the conflict in Kosova by sending troops to Albania to seal the border and thus act in favor of Milosevic” (Ibid). Klaus Kinkel, then the head of the German foreign office added, “Of course you have to consider whether you are permitted from a moral and ethical point of view to prevent the Kosovo-Albanians from buying weapons for their self defense” (Ibid).
Strategic differences between German and U.S. policies did diminish considerably, however, when the Clinton Administration finally decided to go to war in favor of Kosovar Albanians and the secessionist KLA. It is both interesting and puzzling that most Albanians give all the credit to the United States for intervening in Kosova while they hardly ever mention Germany’s unwavering support. Even now while the postwar debate about the future of Kosova continues, U.S. policy rejects the idea of creating a greater Albania, whereas German policy seems to be pushing for it. Being grateful is the right thing but Albanians should be mindful that involvement of the U.S. and Germany in Kosova is because of their own interests and, therefore, the collaboration between all parties should be viewed as a partnership of mutual interests. The massive Camp Bondsteel build in the Eastern part of Kosova, which is the main base of the United States Army and the NATO headquarters for KFOR, is not there only to protect Kosova; it also serves a wider purpose of keeping Russians out of the Balkans.

The Russian Factor

The ethnic conflict in Kosova, which reached its peak during the 1998-99 crisis, cannot be completely understood if Russia is not included in the analysis. Historically, Russia has had a longstanding interest in the Balkans that began when the gateway city of Constantinople and the strait to the Mediterranean Sea fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. An extensive body of literature describes the Balkans as the subject of Russia’s vital interest. The slogans mostly used to describe reasons for Russia’s involvement in Balkans include “access to Adriatic” as a way to give “access to straits” or liberation of Slavic “brother nations” from the Ottomans and, in the last two decades to provide “resistance to the expansion of the Atlantic structures” (Bonin, 2001). For centuries, Russia’s geostrategic and economic interests in the Balkans have remained intact. If not derailed, they could “all too easily acquire the character of eternal continuity” (Ibid).
Russia’s involvement in the Balkans has over the years developed into a central theme of its foreign relations policy. The main reasons for this are not ideological but rather derive from Russia’s fear of internal and external factors and the pursuit of power. The argument most advanced in the West though is about the idea of Pan-Slavism and Orthodox unity of the Slavic people who had pressured the Russian government to take an interest in the Balkans. While it is true that most Orthodox believers aside from Russia live in the Balkans, the religion was not a factor of state objectives so much as a tool to achieve them. Nonetheless, the Slavic connection with the Balkan states such as Serbia and Montenegro became a beneficial partnership in pursuit of mutual interests. Under the czars, Russia was an imperialist and expansionist state that had a desire to control its only outlet to the Mediterranean—and the key to gaining access to the straits was keeping the Balkan states under its domain. However, Russia was fearful that it would not be able to withstand the growing strength of the Central Powers and their influence in the region; thus, it used the ideological reason for pushing its agenda in the Balkans to establish independent Slavic states and to enlarge their territories at the expense of the Albanian people. While openly advocating Pan-Slavism—the union of the Slavic people under Russian leadership—Russia asserted itself as the protector of Orthodox Christians and as the older kin to Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians. Under the veneer of Pan-Slavism, fear was more significant than ideologies in fostering Russia’s interest in the Balkans, mindful of course of its imperialistic ambitions.
Russian influence in the Balkans remained strong throughout the period between the two World Wars. Arrangements with allies to defeat the Nazi regime in Europe and the geopolitical changes that followed significantly reduced the Russian influence in the region, especially concerning Yugoslavia. During the Cold War, under the leadership of Tito and with the help of the West, Yugoslavia managed to keep the Russians at bay. After Tito left and specifically when Yugoslavia began disintegration in 1991, Russia utilized the opportunity to again become involved in Balkan affairs and to insert its influence in the region. Eager to secure its position as a major player in international diplomacy, Russia immediately sent its policymakers to intervene and refused to allow Western interests to predominate in the Balkans. For the West, Russia’s engagement in the Yugoslav crisis was a double-edged sword; it created as many problems as it resolved. Initially, while Russia was extensively engaged with other NATO members on what to do about the developing crisis in Kosova, cooperation started to deteriorate once the possible use of coercive measures to impose a settlement were introduced. On the day the bombing began in Kosova, the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin severed most of its institutional links with NATO. At a specially convened meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s permanent representative, expressed his country’s profound outrage of the launch of airstrikes. In the view of the Russian government, he said:
“Those who are involved in this unilateral use of force against the sovereign Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—carried out in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and without the authorization of the Security Council—must realize the heavy responsibility they bear for subverting the Charter and other norms of international law and for attempting to establish in the world, de facto, the primacy of force and unilateral diktat” (Latawski & Smith, 2003).
Russian leaders quickly realized that it would be better for them to remain involved in the Balkan arena and, three weeks after the start of Operation Allied Force, they secured a role in the diplomatic negotiations that would eventually contribute to ending the hostilities and forcing Milosevic to accept a military settlement regarding Kosova.
While Russia was weak and ineffective, it was Serbia’s only major ally. After the settlement, Russia accepted that NATO would lead an international security presence in Kosova. This allowed for UN National Security Resolution 1244 to be put in place, which recalled all the previous resolutions on Kosova and authorized an international civil and military presence in Kosova. For Serbia, it was crucial that Russian peacekeeping troops would participate in Kosova. However, the working alliance between Russia and NATO did not run smoothly; the day the UN resolution was passed, some 200 Russian troops detached themselves from the Russian contingent of the NATO led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and marched to the airport in Prishtina, arriving there before the first NATO troops from the newly formed KFOR. While many conspiracy theories attempt to explain why Russia decided to undertake this dramatic and risky gesture, the most rational theory suggests that Yeltsin wanted to distract attention from the political travails at home (Latawski & Smith, 2003). Regardless of the true motive for the incident, the fact that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov distanced himself from it shows the fragmentation of the policy decision-making process (Bonin, 2001). The Kosova affair and the Russian involvement in it caused immense problems for NATO cohesion, exacerbating problems within the alliance and creating tensions between General Wesley Clark, Supreme NATO Commander in Europe, and General Sir Mike Jackson, field Commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), who disobeyed the order from General Clark, his immediate superior, to block the runways at Prishtina Airport and isolate the Russian contingent. Reviewing the book Collision Course: NATO, Russia and Kosovo by John Norris and Strobe Talbott, Vassilis Fouskas note, “It is now highly unlikely that NATO will ever operate as a war alliance again, becoming instead a peacekeeping collective operator. Peace enforcement, that is war, will be the job of the U.S. force alone” (Fouskas, 2007).
While the war ended, Russia’s participation in Balkan affairs seriously curtailed. Russia was excluded from the KFOR decision-making process and was isolated from NATO’s main force. Russia’s prospects of ever joining NATO diminished. In effect, while NATO and the United States reneged on their agreement with Russia, the Russians were in no position to react. It can be argued that Yeltsin’s humiliation over Kosova led to the rise of Vladimir Putin. The Russians’ perception that the United States had double-crossed them in an act of supreme contempt was a significant factor, aside from Yeltsin’s apathy. Putin took over the helm and was committed to regain Russian intellectual influence and international respect (Friedman, 2007). Since then, although Kosova has declared itself an independent sovereign state and over 90 countries have recognized it, Serbia and Russia continue to strongly oppose Kosova’s independence and threaten to block its membership to the United Nations. Russia has a veto power in the UN Security Council and must approve Kosova’s membership. Russia’s decisive divergence with the West and its strong opposition to Kosova’s independence is understood; after all, Putin came to power because under the previous regime the West allegedly would not take Russia seriously, so he had to remain defiant or his authority would be seriously weakened (Ibid). As long as the United States and its European allies consider Kosova a side issue of no significant importance for the time being, for Russia and its ally Serbia, Kosova is both a current and strategic opportunity to protect their interest in the Balkans.

The Cliffhanger

Despite NATO’s war effort and the substantial international postwar funding and commitments, the international engagement in Kosova has yet to produce a lasting peace. While NATO’s decisive air campaign was able to achieve security for Kosovar Albanians who were facing death or eviction by the Yugoslav (Serbian) army, the lack of clarity regarding long-term objectives and an exit strategy has created a status quo that has hampered the process for strategic solutions. Kosova remains internally divided, externally in limbo, and its security threatened. The objectives of international engagements should not be merely to win the war, but also to win the peace (Koppe, 2010). However, finding a permanent solution for Kosova is not a simple process when vital interests of major international players are at stake. Thus, with no international consensus on the framework for a new Balkan security structure, the United States preoccupied with fighting terrorism and increasingly focusing on problems in the Middle East, the European Union struggling with its own existential crises and new regional players supporting their own allies, Kosova’s and the Balkans’ problems are henceforth bound to last longer and be less manageable than they were in the past (Bardos, 2008). Under such circumstances, the people who suffer the most are those who are caught in the middle, in this case the Kosovar Albanians. The nation’s self-determination rights and liberty to chart its own future are suspended until all stakeholders find a compromising resolution. Until then, nothing can be taken for granted and no one can predict the final outcome. It has been said that in politics there are no permanent friends or foes, just permanent interests. Kosova should be cognizant of the fact that the first episode of their saga ended in a cliffhanger and the second episode is still a work in progress. Kosovars should not rely solely on writers to secure a favorable outcome, but should proactively write their own story.
(January 2013)


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