Putin's Balkan Mischief

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Russia is again on a tear. This time, the Kremlin has stuck its finger in the West's eye over the long and painful effort to bring Kosovo to formal independence. Unlike the fracas over a planned U.S. missile defense shield in Europe, this conflict shows no signs of blowing over, and threatens to damage further the rocky relationship between Russia and the West.

At every turn, Russia has challenged Western efforts to facilitate Kosovo's independence. After a year of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin rejected the United Nation mediator's report recommending supervised independence, prevented the UN Security Council from accepting that report, and insisted on three additional months of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo -- even after compromise became impossible.

Three weeks ago in the UN Security Council, Russia again insisted that any agreement required the approval of both Serbia and Kosovo and that further negotiations were necessary. Russia knows that such negotiations will be fruitless but believes that another seemingly innocent appeal for more talks would strain European Union unity, which appears to be a vital goal for Putin. Further delay might also generate violence in Kosovo and undermine international support for independence.

Putin's hatred of the Boris Yeltsin-era "subservient" relations with the West fuels his opposition. But the West's delay in resolving Kosovo's status permitted that opposition to gain traction. Indeed, the West has consistently misread Russia's intentions on Kosovo. Many claimed that the Kremlin was delaying the inevitable but ultimately would not block independence. Now, at the eleventh hour, Russia is sticking to its obstructionist position, and its presidential election in March will likely reinforce anti-Western postures.

So what will Putin do when the United States and most EU members recognize an independent Kosovo in the coming months without a UN blessing, as they now plan?

It is unlikely that the Kremlin would attempt another military intervention in Kosovo (their effort in 1999 to land troops at Pristina Airport was a fiasco), but it has a range of options that must give the West pause.

Kremlin support has made Serbia's nationalist intransigence over Kosovo effective. Russia has said it will not give Serbia a blank check, but it will likely support the Serbian government's efforts to isolate and destabilize an independent Kosovo.

While Serbia has resisted partition of Kosovo, Russia would also support a Serbian proposal to partition the Serb-populated north, an effort that would open up a Pandora's box of possible partition of Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Such a proposal could get some support in Europe and elsewhere as a seemingly appropriate compromise, even if it would destabilize the Balkans once more.

Russia will certainly continue its diplomatic efforts to persuade the world that negotiations are the only way to solve the problem and that it cannot be solved outside the UN. That will attract support among many UN members, including those that have major dissatisfied ethnic minorities.

Russia could also react beyond the Balkans, most obviously in the Caucasus, by recognizing other breakaway regions, particularly in Georgia. A declaration of independence by Kosovo would likely bring a similar declaration from Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia, which Russia could well recognize. If Georgia takes military steps to prevent that, Russia's military would likely react with force, creating a situation that could get out of control.

While the United States and the EU do not want to worsen relations with Russia, they cannot retreat in the face of Russian obduracy; security in Europe is at stake. But they must also continue to try to preempt confrontation with Russia on all fronts.

The West should make clear to Serbia that it will react vigorously against any efforts to promote violence or partition Kosovo. Dispatching additional NATO troops, in addition to the planned EU mission, to supervise Kosovo independence would be helpful.

Putin's Russia, which pays little attention to the rule of law, cloaks its diplomatic effort in the guise of adherence to international law, in particular UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which ended the 1999 Kosovo war. A long-overdue diplomatic offensive needs to be launched to undercut Russian arguments as well as remind the world of what happened in Kosovo.

Resolution 1244 does not state that Kosovo must remain under Serb sovereignty, as Russia and Serbia insist, nor does it preclude independence. Indeed, any reasonable reading of the resolution -- especially in the context of the conflict-ridden Balkans over the past two decades -- would acknowledge that independence would satisfy the resolution's intent and the purpose of sustaining UN supervision of the province for the past eight years.

In the case of Abkhazia, the West should reiterate the sui generis nature of Kosovo and highlight the tremendous efforts it has undertaken there since 1999. The world must make clear that Russian military involvement in Abkhazia is unacceptable, while also restraining Georgia's government from reacting militarily to any provocation.

How Russia reacts to Western support of Kosovo's coming declaration of independence will test how far we have progressed since the Cold War. Through careful management of Kosovo's independence process and attentiveness to opportunities to improve relations with Russia, the West might mitigate the worst consequences of this confrontation. Regardless, a new Cold War might just get a little colder.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. © Project Syndicate.