Streetwise Professor

March 3, 2008

Is There a Third Option?

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:03 am

I am deeply ambivalent over Kosovo’s declaration of independence, and the support for this move from the EU and the US. Kosovars certainly suffered immensely at the hands of the Serbs, and Serb anger over independence does not move me at all. That said, Kosovo’s leadership hardly inspires confidence, and the very real possibility that Kosovo will serve (if it is already not serving) as a sanctuary for Islamist extremists in Europe is quite disturbing. Lastly–though you might be quite surprised to hear this coming from the likes of me–this seems a bad time to aggravate Russia, and a bad issue to aggravate it about. It is not a central strategic issue to the US, and hardly one for Europe. This plays into the hands of the worst elements in the Kremlin, and in Russia at large, and for what? Why put further strains on a strategically important relationship over what for the US should be a tertiary issue, and on behalf of one entity that is only slightly less unappealing than the other? We certainly will get no props from the Muslim world for rescuing an oppressed Muslim population–yet again. So, what’s the upside?

That said, I doubt that Russia will do anything precipitate in response. In particular, I doubt that it will carry through on its threats to support separatist movements in Ossetia and Abkhazia, and for the very reason that it is so exercised over the Kosovo “precedent.” Russia fears the precedent because it fears the centrifugal, separatist forces within the RF, most notably in the north Caucasus. Justified or no, Putin and others in the Kremlin are aghast at the prospect of a breakup of the RF, or at least the breakaway of certain parts of it. If Kosovo serves as a precedent for separatist movements that Russia fears could fracture Russia, Russia would only reinforce the precedent by supporting such movements in Georgia or Moldova. So, such support would be cutting off Russia’s nose to spite its face. This is not to say that Russia will refrain from stirring the pot in Georgia or Moldova or in the Ukraine (over Crimea, for instance), but they will stop short of supporting and recognizing independence movements.

Stratfor argues that Russia is retaliating by putting pressure on Georgia and Ukraine to “persuade” these nations not to join NATO–but Russia would do that regardless, independent Kosovo or no. At best, Kosovo gives Russia an issue that they can use to put the EU and the US on the defensive, but if the Kosovo argument wasn’t there, they’d just find another. With the Russians, like Roseanne Rosanadana used to say, “It’s always something.” Russia deems Georgian and/or Ukrainian accession to NATO a dire threat to its vital interests, and an intrusion on its sphere of influence, and will pull out the stops to prevent this.

At best–or worst–Kosovo gives Russia more influence over Serbia, and strengthens the pro-Russian nationalist elements in that country. But, the Russians have already demonstrated that their support comes at a huge price–witness what amounts to the theft of Serbia’s national oil company by Gazprom. Soon the Serbians will understand that Slavic/Orthodox solidarity is merely a front for Russian economic and geopolitical interests.

Showing some deference to Russia on the Kosovo issue would by no means assuage Russia. Putin et al have way too many issues, and are feeling their oats, and would take an inch on Kosovo and continue to demand miles on myriad other issues. But giving a bit on an issue of no pressing importance to the US would help to undercut the diplomatic and political influence of Russian complaints outside of Europe, especially as many nations (including European ones) have their own anxieties about separatist movements.

In sum, it is possible to protect the Kosovars from the Serbs without supporting full-blown independence. It raises an issue with Russia that Putin and his coterie can exploit, but does not provide any offsetting benefit to the US or Europe. So it would have been far preferable indeed to craft a third option that would have protected Kosovo; not presented such a stark challenge to the Westphalian system; and deprived the Russians of a hobby horse that they can ride to raise mischief.

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