The Tactics and Strategic Goals of Russia’s Stand on the Independence of Kosovo (ARI)

The Tactics and Strategic Goals of Russia’s Stand on the Independence of Kosovo (ARI)

Theme: This ARI reviews the evolution of Russia’s stance on Kosovo from the disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia to the NATO bombing of Serbia and the implications of a Kosovar independent State according to the Ahtisaari Plan.

Summary: Since the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo was put forward in February, Moscow’s rejection of it has only hardened and so has its rejection by Belgrade. Russia was frustrated and humiliated by the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the subsequent loss of influence in the Balkans. Now the Kremlin has been vindicated. Kosovo might develop into a ‘frozen conflict’, where there is no outright fighting but also no permanent commonly acceptable political solution. The majority of Serbs appreciate Russia’s support; Western cohesion has been strained, while the value of Russia’s UN veto power and its international position has been enhanced. Without committing troops or investing money, Russia has gained much by obstructing the West and there seems no reason to back off. The two main objectives of Vladimir Putin’s presidency have been the strengthening of the Russian State and the weakening of regional separatism, and the ‘Kosovo precedent’ is highly dangerous for both.


Russia has traditionally supported the Serbs as brother Slavs and Orthodox Christians. The rulers of imperial Russia used the Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire as an internal fifth column in their wars against the Turks. Imperial Russia hoped to use its patronage of Turkey’s Christian communities to eventually take over a substantial part of the Ottoman Empire together with the most precious prize: the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to gain unimpeded access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian troops were withdrawn from the eastern half of Europe that had been overrun in 1945. Moscow’s influence diminished within the borders of the former USSR as troops were withdrawn from Transcaucasia and the Baltic Republics, while in Central Asia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Moldova most units pledged loyalty to the newly independent regimes. At this point the wars in the former Yugoslavia offered, it seemed, an opportunity to extend Russia’s military and political presence in an area of traditional influence under the traditional pretexts of Pan-Slavism and Pan-Orthodoxy. At the same time, the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his fellows in the self-proclaimed independent entities in Croatia and Bosnia looked to Moscow for support.

The Serbs and Milosevic needed Russia as they were seeking ways to defy international condemnation and isolation. Moscow in turn suddenly could see in its grasp a relatively cheap option to restore some semblance of international influence at a time when the internal economic and political strife of the 1990s, as well as the shameful and costly military lapses in Chechnya undermined its credibility. Thus, a couple of thousand Russian paratroopers were deployed as peacekeepers in Croatia and Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Later on, Moscow opposed the bombing of Serbian positions in Bosnia in 1995, but this antagonism did not develop into a major confrontation with the Western powers and Russia helped to negotiate the compromise peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Russia’s Opposition to the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia: The Rise and Fall of Russian Influence in the Balkans
The NATO air bombing campaign in 1999 aimed at stopping Serbia’s persecution of the Albanian majority in Kosovo caused a severe rift that is still today casting a shadow on East-West relations. As US-led NATO air strikes commenced in March 1999, the public reaction in Russia was violently anti-Western and anti-American. Russia halted its cooperation programmes with NATO and Russian officials used harsh Cold War-style language. For instance, the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Igor Ivanov, said that ‘For the first time since World War Two an act of aggression against a sovereign state took place in Europe. Never since 1945 was Europe so close to serious ordeals. Whatever reasons US strategists offer to justify their actions, their true aims are clear –to impose the political, military and economic dictatorship of the US, to establish a kind of unipolar world in which the destinies of peoples would be decided in Washington–.’ Ivanov also remarked that the air strikes showed NATO’s ‘aggressive nature’ despite the Western efforts to present it as a post-Cold War organisation. The Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, stated that the attempt to base the motivation of NATO’s air strikes against Yugoslavia on the desire to avert a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo was ‘absolutely invalid’ and that ‘Any attempt to apply other standards to international law and to ignore its fundamental principles creates a dangerous precedent fraught with rapid destabilisation and chaos at regional and global levels’. In this way Lavrov introduced the Russian standing argument of Kosovo as a precedent that could spread instability and secession over to other regions (Itar-Tass, Interfax, 25 March 1999).

As the NATO air campaign developed in 1999, anti-Western rhetoric accelerated. On 3 April 1999 the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live, recognised that the position of the UN Security Council was being ‘undermined while Russia was being humiliated’. Gorbachev believed that the military intervention would push the arms race ahead and one month later he admitted the possibility of a new Cold War ‘and even, perhaps, a hot war’ as well (Reuters, 27 May 1999). President Boris Yeltsin said that Russia could go to war if the West were to try to liberate the Serbian province of Kosovo and predicted a possible ‘all-European and perhaps a world war’. The Speaker of the Russian State Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, announced that Yeltsin had ordered Russia’s strategic rocket forces to re-target their nuclear weapons on NATO countries involved in attacks on Yugoslavia (ITAR-TASS, 9 April 1999). To reinforce this gloomy perception, Russian news agencies reported that a squadron of seven ships, including missile frigates and anti-submarine frigates, would sail from the Black Sea Fleet to the Mediterranean in early April 1999 (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, 31 March 1999). Besides, public opinion polls showed that 98% of Russians disapproved of NATO actions while 73% considered that the NATO military operation in Yugoslavia was a direct threat to Russia’s security. Regarding the final goal of the NATO campaign, most of those polled believed as a first option that NATO wanted to show its strength, but their second option was that NATO was trying to take over the Balkans in order to advance towards the border to attack Russia.

Despite all this, Russian action proved to be much weaker than its rhetoric. The promised armada was never sent to the Mediterranean. Only one unarmed intelligence-gathering ship was actually dispatched. Seleznyov’s declaration about the re-targeting of nuclear weapons was swiftly dismissed by the Defence Ministry and the Kremlin and the First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov –in charge of the military-industrial complex in the Primakov government in 1999– recognised that it was absolutely impossible and unnecessary to supply arms or provide military assistance to Yugoslavia. In 1999, Russia badly needed Western financial support after the August 1998 financial collapse and the Kremlin finally helped the West to press Milosevic to back down and withdraw his forces from Kosovo, allowing the forcibly expelled Albanian population to return. In an attempt to preserve its edge of autonomy in the post-conflict operations in Kosovo, Moscow decided to deploy a large Russian peacekeeping force of 5,000-10,000 troops within its own sector of responsibility. In order to achieve an autonomous presence outside the NATO command structure, Russia rushed 200 paratroopers into Kosovo from Bosnia in June 1999 in order to occupy the Pristina airport, with plans to use the airstrip to airlift more Russian troops as reinforcements, but this was prevented by Hungary and Rumania refusing to let Russian military transport airplanes fly over their airspace. The Pristina airport gamble almost led to a direct confrontation between Russia’s small lightly armed token force and a very much larger and heavily armed NATO contingent. Eventually Moscow backed down once again and, in the end, only 3,600 Russian paratroopers were deployed as peacekeepers in Kosovo and they were dispersed into several different sectors. Russia did not get its own sector of responsibility in Kosovo, unlike Italy, France, Germany, the UK and the US, because it was believed that this could lead to the partition of Kosovo.

Gorbachev was right. Russia and its ruling elites were indeed frustrated and humiliated and NATO’s action against Yugoslavia was perceived by many as a terrifying forecast of what could happen to Russia if NATO were to continue to expand in the same aggressive manner. The sense of having been humiliated in Kosovo grew in Russia and is still not forgotten in Moscow. Vladimir Putin witnessed the entire process while he was the chief of the KGB’s successor organisation (Federalnaya Sluzhba Besopasnosti, or FSB) and Secretary of the Russian Security Council. Later, Putin was appointed Prime Minister by Yeltsin in August 1999 and he was elected President of Russia in 2000. Putin came to power with a strong desire to restore Russia’s political, economic and military might. His initial desire was heightened after the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, when Putin told the nation in an interview on RTR (the Russian state TV) on 24 August 2000 that ‘We will overcome it all and restore it all: the military and the navy and the state’.

In 2000, Milosevic was overthrown by a popular revolution that was badly received in Moscow. Seleznyov, the Speaker of the Duma, called the overthrow a ‘coup’. The Duma refused to send greetings to the new Yugoslav leader Vojislav Kostunica and Moscow continued to support Milosevic even when he was on trial at the International Criminal Court until his death in March 2006 while in prison in The Hague and his family were given asylum. The leaders of the post-Milosevic Serbia seemed to be mainly interested in ending their nation’s international isolation and eventually joining the EU. It was decided in the Kremlin that continuing to maintain a costly military peacekeeping presence in the former Yugoslavia was pointless. In 2003, the Russian peacekeepers were withdrawn from Kosovo and the Balkans in general. Once again, as occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia’s influence in the Balkans was proving to be stronger in times of conflict than in peace. From a geopolitical perspective, Russia is unable to help either Serbia or any other Balkan nation to join the EU or NATO. Neither can Russia speed up the modernisation or economic progress of these countries or help their populations to gain free access to travel and work in Europe. On the contrary, any closer connection to Russia could be perceived as the road to further isolation as Russia itself is turning into an autocratic and self-isolated dictatorship. Thus, only in the event of conflict can Russia gain influence by offering arms, providing natural gas or becoming a haven for political or military fugitives, essentially by using its power of veto in the UN Security Council in Serbia’s favour.

A Chance to Stage a Comeback: The Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo
In February 2007, the UN mediator on Kosovo’s future status, the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, presented a final Kosovo settlement plan that included the region’s de facto independence under international supervision. The plan also guaranteed seats in Kosovo’s parliament for Serbs and other minorities as well as the protection of Serbian churches, monasteries and other religious and cultural sites in the province, considered by the Serbs as the cradle of their culture and statehood. The Serbian authorities in Belgrade rejected the plan because although they are willing to grant Kosovo broad autonomy, they will never allow the province to secede. Moscow fully backed the Serbian position. Putin, speaking in February at the Security Conference in Munich stated that ‘Only the Kosovars and the Serbs can settle the future of Kosovo. We must not play God and decide for them’. Since then, Russia is seeking an agreement that can satisfy both parties in the conflict. Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, implied that accepting the Ahtisaari plan could spark a chain reaction and open up a Pandora’s Box: ‘It all depends on how we approach the principle of territorial integrity. We can approach it from the point of view of the current political situation, or take territorial integrity as an inviolable principle. If hypothetically we suppose Kosovo is given independence, people in other unrecognised regions will wonder, so why not us as well?’. This possibility has generated a serious concern in Moscow, where officials have repeatedly indicated that if Kosovo’s sovereignty is granted, the international community could also recognise the independence of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Georgia, Transdnistria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan (RIA-Novosti, 9 February 2007).

Initially it was believed that Russia’s seemingly uncompromising position on Kosovo would most likely end in some sort of trade-off. In February 2007, Reuters quoted a Western diplomat, who withheld his name, affirming that ‘In the end, the Russians will want a trade-off’, and that the ultimate price for Russia agreeing to the Kosovo plan could involve deals on Iran or North Korea, where Moscow is trying to resist a US-led push for tougher sanctions. The warning from the Kremlin that giving Kosovo independence would set a dangerous precedent, encouraging separatists across Europe to press their own claims for statehood and that Moscow could use autonomy for Kosovo as a precedent to push for the independence of Kremlin-backed separatists in the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova –the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’– was dismissed as mere bluff. The German Foreign Affairs Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, summarised the Western position on this argument stressing on behalf of the international community that ‘… Kosovo cannot become a model which can be applied to conflicts in Georgia’ (Reuters, 20 February 2007).

It is true that the separatist regimes in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh would be glad to use the so-called ‘Kosovo precedent’ to gain official recognition of independence by Moscow and eventually the international community. At a joint press conference in Moscow (Interfax news agency, 4 June 2007), the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoiti issued an appeal to the United Nation, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the CIS Council of Heads of State to recognise their nations as states in accordance with the principle of self-determination. Bagapsh and Kokoiti acknowledged that representatives of the Kosovo Albanians had been taking part as observers in the activities of the Community for Democracy and the Rights of Peoples –a group formed in 2006 by Transdnistria, Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to promote the international recognition of these ‘unrecognised republics’ and develops links between them. Bagapsh and Kokoiti disclosed that representatives of Kosovo had explored the possibility of joining the Community for Democracy and the Rights of Peoples. The Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders did not rule out that Kosovo could join, but at the same time insisted that their claim to self-determination was stronger than Kosovo’s and did not rest on a possible ‘Kosovo precedent’, although a ‘precedent’ could enhance their claim.

The Abkhaz, South Ossetian and Transdnistria regimes receive economic, political and military support from Moscow and the Community for Democracy and the Rights of Peoples was even built up under the auspices of Putin’s Presidential Administration (Eurasia Daily Monitor,, 7 June 2007). This could explain some of the speculation on a potential ‘trade-off’ based on a UN Security Council resolution recognising Kosovo’s de facto independence in exchange for the West’s tacit acceptance of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria becoming ‘independent’ and afterwards de facto members of the Russian Federation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Dipkurier, February 2007). It is conceivable that some within the Kremlin might have considered such a possible trade-off, but this has not become official policy and, in any case, the West does not seem to be willing to accept or seriously discuss such a deal.

Since the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo was officially put forward in February, Moscow’s rejection has only hardened and so has its rejection by Belgrade. Ahtisaari himself, the six-power Contact Group on Kosovo including the US, Russia, the UK, France, Italy and Germany, and the ‘troika’ made up by the US, Germany and Russia in 2007, have all failed to make any progress in reaching a compromise in the talks with Serbs and Albanians on the future status of Kosovo. Attempts to formulate a compromise resolution in the UN Security Council on Kosovo failed because of the threat of a Russian veto. In July 2007 the Western nations abandoned their attempts to present a new UN resolution given Russia’s opposition. The ‘troika’ has been given until 10 December to attempt to find a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina and submit a final status report to the UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, although as things are the mission seems doomed to failure.

The German Foreign Minister declared in July that any unilateral moves by Kosovo or the US to declare or recognise Kosovo’s independence without a UN Security Council resolution would split the EU and that without a UN resolution the EU would not be able to proceed with its plan to replace the UN as the political authority in Kosovo as part of its supervised independence (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 5-6 July 2007). For his part, Mr Lavrov, the Russian Federation’s current Foreign Affairs Minister, is using more or less the same strong language in describing the Kosovo problem as he did in 1999 when he was Ambassador to the UN. He has criticised the Western powers for insisting that Kosovo’s independence is inevitable because it increases Albanian intransigence. Speaking to journalists in New York he emphasised that the solution to the Kosovo problem should be based only on international law and that any new Security Council resolution on Kosovo should be contingent on a prior mutual agreement between the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians (RIA-Novosti, 25 September 2007). Lavrov continues to insist that negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina must continue as long as it takes to reach an agreement and that only after such an agreement would Russia allow a new Security Council resolution to pass. The apparent success of Moscow’s uncompromising opposition to the Ahtisaari plan is seen as a major foreign policy achievement in Moscow and there seems no incentive to back down.

Russia has already tried to weaken transatlantic solidarity over the Kosovo issue. Attempts to dissociate the US from its European allies have been a long held goal for Moscow during the Cold War and so are they today. As the EU seems to be divided over the issue, Moscow prefers to deal with European nations on a unilateral basis, which is easier than negotiating with Brussels when EU members present a united front. The Kremlin has been at least partially vindicated for the humiliation of the 1999 NATO air campaign and the subsequent loss of influence in the Balkans. Most Serbs are highly appreciative of Russia’s support and Putin is more popular in Serbia today than any local politician (Kommersant, 21 September 2007). Without investing any significant amounts of money or committing any troops on the ground, Russia has gained much by stifling the Ahtisaari plan and obstructing the West in the UN over Kosovo.

The rift over Kosovo is part of the current overall worsening of Russo-Western relations over US plans to deploy missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic, differences over Iran, Moscow’s decision to leave the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and other contentious issues that have today led to a situation reminiscent of the Cold War. But the Kosovo issue is also to a large extent a case apart. After becoming President of Russia in 2000, Putin’s two main objectives have been the strengthening of the Russian state and the rolling back of regional separatism. The threat of a disintegrating Russia –comparable to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991– is still seen today as a very real possibility by the Kremlin and by the Russian elite. Putin has been emphasising that the ‘Kosovo precedent’ could embolden secessionist movements in Europe, the former USSR and other regions that claim an independent status. The same ‘Kosovo precedent’ could be applied to Russia itself. The West is seen today by many in the Russian elite and public as a threatening force that is plotting to tear Russia apart and rob it of its natural resources. By supporting Serbia’s right to veto Kosovo’s secession and by threatening to use Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council, the Kremlin clearly believes it is defending Russia’s undisputed right to sustain its territorial integrity by any means available.

Conclusions: The so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan have allowed Moscow to maintain its influence in regions where economically and politically it has significantly lost its hold since the collapse of the USSR. For the separatist regimes in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria Moscow is a protector that keeps them afloat. At the same time, Moscow uses the ‘frozen conflict’ situation to exert pressure on the authorities in Tbilisi and Kishinev. Russian peacekeeping missions in the ‘frozen conflict’ regions resemble, in essence, the Syrian peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon that ended in 2005. Their objective is to stay as long as possible, to use the deployment to exert covert influence, to line the pockets of military commanders and to leave only when kicked out. Of course, Russia is not directly involved in supporting the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh state, but the permanently unsettled nature of the Karabakh conflict ensures that Armenia continues to be an obedient client state.

If Kosovo develops into yet another ‘frozen conflict’, where there is no fighting, but also no permanent political solution, this will be to Moscow’s advantage. Endless internationally-supervised negotiations to find a nonexistent solution that will fully reconcile Albanian Kosovar aspirations to independence with Serbia’s total rejection of such a notion will preserve Russia’s influence in the Balkans, while preventing Serbia from integrating with the EU and other Western institutions. At the same time, Western cohesion and transatlantic links will be strained while the value of Russia’s UN veto power and its international stature will grow. Kremlin-connected Russian big business will be in a better position to pick up privatised assets in Serbia, Russian arms traders will have a good opportunity to provide the Serbs with new weapons as certain officials in Belgrade are threatening to downgrade diplomatic relations with nations that recognise an independent Kosovo and there is even talk of the possible use of force to ‘preserve Serbian territorial integrity’ (Kommersant, 7 September 2007). Its uncompromising stand on Kosovo’s independence has placed Russia into such an advantageous ‘win-win’ position that it will not be likely to shift in the foreseeable future.

Last but not least, by supporting Belgrade over Kosovo the Kremlin is primarily resisting Western attempts to subdue Russia and possibly forcing its disintegration. The threat of the Russian Federation being dismantled by internal separatist forces aided by the US and other hostile Western powers is seen today as a genuine possibility by the Kremlin and by the Russian elite. Moscow has been emphasising that the ‘Kosovo precedent’ might embolden the secessionist movements in the EU, in the former USSR and in many other regions that claim an independent status. The same ‘Kosovo precedent’ could be applied to Russia itself. The threat from the West, as seen today by many in the Russian elite, is manifold: US plans to deploy missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic; mounting criticism of the suppression of democracy and free speech by the Kremlin; and NATO’s expansion to the East. The uncompromising nature of the Kremlin’s support for Serbia’s right to veto the independence of Kosovo stems to a large extent from the social and political belief that Russia is defending its own undisputed right to sustain its territorial integrity as well as preventing Western ‘humanitarian intervention’ in its internal affairs.

Pavel Felgenhauer
Defence analyst and columnist for Novaya-Gazeta, Moscow