The Kosovo precedent

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, one of the main lines pushed by Putin’s defenders was that the expansion of NATO posed a threat to Russia and that Ukraine was about to join. This didn’t stand up to even momentary scrutiny. The Baltic States had been members since 2004 without doing anything to threaten Russia.

And while Ukraine’s constitution included a goal of joining NATO, Zelenskiy was describing this as a ‘remote dream’ even before the invasion took place, and clearly indicated willingness to abandon the idea in return for peace.

But there is an important sense in which NATO shares responsibility for this disaster. The US intervention in Kosovo, including the bombing of Belgrade, was undertaken by NATO, to avoid the need to get the support of the UN Security Council, where Russia had a veto. This was a substantial breach of international law, followed by a much bigger breach in the invasion of Iraq.

At the time, there was general agreement in the ‘Foreign Policy Community’ aka ‘the Blob’, that

“The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened.”

This rule was implicitly confined to the US. In the brief period of US hyperpower, it could be assumed that the US, as sheriff of the global system, could enforce rules of non-agression against others, while also being judge and jury in its own actions. I argued against this at the time, pointing to the power of example, and was roundly criticised for my naivety.

But Putin was paying close attention, and drew the conclusion that if America was above the law, so was Russia. [1] The Kosovo precedent played a big role in his increasingly aggressive actions, culminating (so far) in the Ukraine invasion

Counterfactuals are tricky. Perhaps Putin would have acted in the same way, even without the precedent provided by NATO. But he was certainly encouraged by the sophisticated realists who dismissed international law as a figleaf.

fn1. Another participant in this debate, Glenn Greenwald, took the argument to its logical extreme and became a Putin backer, beginning with the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

9 thoughts on “The Kosovo precedent

  1. The murderous dictator Slobodan Milošević, who had already shown in Bosnia that he was willing to support ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen in Europe since the Nazi era, had initiated a campaign to kill or displace the entire ethnic Muslim Kosovar (“Turkish”) population of Kosovo and to repopulate it with Orthodox Christian Serbs, and was using diplomatic negotiations to stall while he carried out his program. There was no possibility of UN-sponsored intervention, as you admit.

    So your argument is that the Western European nations, after their grotesque failure in Bosnia — when NATO unpardonably delayed action until the Serbs murdered 10,000 ethnic Bosniaks (also “Turks”) in Srebrenica — should have done even less — nothing, in fact — while the Serbs continued their program to exterminate Muslim minorities in the Balkans.

    And why? Because by standing by and watching the mass murder of Muslims in 1999, NATO might have preserved its ability to persuade Putin not to invade Ukraine two decades later.

    Color me unpersuaded.

  2. Granted that something had to be done, the US should have
    (a) made a much bigger effort to get Russia’s agreement in the UN
    (b) limited intervention to action that directly protected Kosovars. Bombing TV stations in Belgrade doesn’t meet that criteriosn

  3. The Kremlin psywar guys must be delighted to have found at least one enthusiastic customer in Australia for their output. The interesting question to my mind is whether they are finding any in Russia. The eminent historian of 20th-century genocides Timothy Snyder makes the case in a long twitter thread that support for the war in Russia is broad but shallow, and does not extend to willingness to die for Putin’s imperial vision, especially (I would add) when equipped with Korean-war vintage T34 tanks (photographic evidence).

    If you are looking for a rational case to go easy on Russia on reparations to let them save face, try Barry Eichengreen: . I am unsympathetic. The main humiliation for Russian nationalists, as with Germany in 1918, will be the defeat and the casualty toll, not reparations. Being humiliated goes with the territory of imperialism. France was humiliated in Algeria, the USA in Vietnam, and Britain managed it fighting Zulus and Afghans. The Russians will just have to grow up.

  4. Good points, John.

    I would add to your points, just above, that:
    (c) The war in Kosovo/Serbia which was strictly illegal, has received the tiniest fraction of attention, compared to Russia’s illegal war here, with terrible consequences, including war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now the Ukraine.
    (d) Besides the many cases of ‘accidents’, (NATO jets bombing columns of fleeing Kosovars) collateral damage, and murder of journalists, the worst atrocities committed in Kosovo by the Serbs, proceeded from the NATO actions, ie. came after the bombing–which was both anticipated by the NATO leadership and obvious to anyone and everyone at the time, as one of its main effects.

  5. I am putting my neck out by venturing to make any comment. Let me start with some questions.

    1. If I understand correctly, the UN gave its o.k. with NATO involvement in Afghanistan. Considering the end to this long conflict, isn’t it the case that both NATO and the UN are humiliated (as well as Russia)?

    2. It seems to me both Russia and Ukraine are already humiliated regarding NATO. Russia because two neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, had their application for NATO membership accepted recently (I can’t remember the name given to this status which precedes full membership). Ukraine because having NATO membership as its goal in her constitution seems to have been an act that was ill-advised. (I recall an interview of a military strategy expert on German public TV. She was asked, why did Russia invade Ukraine in February 2022? Her answer was clear cut. She said, because by the end of 2022 Ukraine would have been in the position of applying for NATO membership. Since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, USA and UK military trained about 24000 Ukraine military personnel.)

    3. Suppose one defines an international organisation as ‘democratic’ if each member country has one vote. In this case the EU is a democratic organisation but the UN is not because the ‘powerful’ (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have veto power in the UN security council on ‘substantive’ declarations. Both organisational structures don’t work well at all times (eg Hungary re EU). As for the UN, it would seem to me that ‘non-veto’ countries have an incentive to align with veto-power countries on specific issues, or in general, which in turn gives the veto-power countries an incentive to grow their geo-political realm of influence.
    The 5 veto-power countries are all nuclear power countries. At least Russia and the USA have so far adhered to the logic of mutual destruction (Russia stayed out of direct involvement in Kosovo and the USA is doing the same regarding Ukraine). I venture to say neither the French nor the English will dare a first strike and they can keep themselves busy with disputes about fishing rights in the North Sea. China has to make an assumption as to which nuclear power – possibly all – would respond to her using a first strike. The question arises: Should the UN become ‘democratic’?

    4. The Ukraine people have been under foreign domination for a very long time. There were the Swedes (now a peaceful people but with a rather military conquest history), then the Poles (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), then the German Nazis (now short of military equipment after half a century or more of ‘Annäherung’), then the liberators, the Soviets, caused a famine, and now Putin says there is no independent Ukraine people on the grounds that Kyiv is the home of Russian culture – Kyiv-rus, which indeed existed about 1000 years ago. Has Mr Putin considered China might wish to have back the territory to her North that was annexed by Russia? Would everybody in all current countries know the location where their ancestors were 1000 years ago? And what about mixed ethnics from way back?
    Could it be that the Ukraine people just want to be free from foreign domination for once? But why have NATO membership as an objective in the constitution?
    Why did Putin not go to the UN to express his grievances regarding NATO membership ambitions, if this is indeed a grievance?

    Only questions, no answers.

  6. Ernestine: “Russia stayed out of direct involvement in Kosovo..” Not quite. See this: . The British commander on he spot, General Mike Jackson, refused to carry out Wesley Clark’s reckless order to confront the Russians, and instead sent them a water truck – making the point that without a supply chain they needed his cooperation to survive. Rumour has it that Jackson and Zavarzin drank each other under the table. A very close shave.

  7. Good one, James. I should have written “Russia stayed out of direct combat in the Kosovo war and the USA is doing the same regarding Ukraine.” The encounter you refer to happened at a critical point after the war, which ended on 11 June 1999 (using your reference as source), when a peace keeping force was installed that involved both Russian and NATO forces.

    (Nice case study to illustrate the notion of a ‘critical point’ in practice – in a regime change in this case.)

  8. IMHO, JQ’s post belongs to research aimed at using a comparative static framework to gain insights.

    There is, I suggest, a large context that is not captured by comparing USA and Russia’s behaviour regarding Kosovo and Ukraine. The Bosnian war, the Kosovo war, the conflict in Moldau, the Chechan wars, the Ukrainian wars (Crimea, Donbas, Feb 2022) followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. All of them involve ethnic tensions and ethnic conflicts that had been suppressed or considered irrelevant during the Soviet regime (not unlike those ongoing conflicts in Africa and on the Indian sub-continent following the end of colonial rule by European ‘powers’).

    Today, I read an article in the smh, which I believe gives some insights into some aspects of the turmoil caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union within Russia. The article by Deborah Snow is titled: “Russian officers 30 years ago presaged rise of Putin, Ukraine conflict”

    The economic mess left by Yeltsin with his policy of switching from a centrally planned system to an extreme form of naive and unconstrained form of capitalism via the fire sale of state assets caused extreme hardship for many people, as is recorded elsewhere.

    IMHO, this article also goes some way to help understand Emmanuel Macron’s much criticised comment with words to the effect that we must not humiliate Russia.(Macron did not say Putin).

    Where a comparison of the behaviour of the USA and the Russian Federation seems to me to be more apt is in the Middle East (Irak and Syria).

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