Obsessed with Iraq, the Bush administration and the public have paid too little attention to a series of Russian challenges to the stability of Europe. There is no doubt that President Vladimir Putin, emboldened by America's difficulties and the effectiveness of his energy diplomacy (which sometimes looks like blackmail), is seeking to regain ground lost in the decade after the Soviet Union's collapse, while at home Putin pursues increasingly authoritarian, often brutal, policies. Only when Putin harshly criticized the United States during a conference in Munich last month (with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham sitting in front of him) did Americans pay attention -- and then only briefly. Now a key test of Russia's relationship with the West is at hand, and Russia's actions could determine whether there is another war in Europe.
Remember Kosovo? It was the big story in 1999, when 78 days of U.S.-led NATO bombing liberated the overwhelmingly Albanian region from repressive Serb control. Its final status was left unresolved under a compromise U.N. Security Council resolution. The United Nations has administered the region, and NATO has protected it, ever since. But the United States and the European Union neglected the final-status issue while positions hardened in Kosovo and Belgrade.On March 26, the formidable U.N. special envoy, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, will present to the Security Council a plan that would lead to phased independence for Kosovo, with strong guarantees for the rights of the Serb minority there. Belgrade is deeply opposed, as it has been to any change in the status of Kosovo, an area that the Serbs feel is part of their historic territory but that is now more than 90 percent Albanian. In the end, the Serbs will have to face the truth: Kosovo is gone from Serbia forever, a result of the policies of the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Serbia's future -- and it could be bright -- lies within the European Union, if it can get past its own paralyzing historical myths. A peaceful path to Kosovo's independence would open up the entire Balkans, including Serbia, to a promising new era of regional cooperation.
Enter Moscow, encouraging exactly the wrong tendencies within Serbia.
Putin says Russia will not support anything that the Serbs oppose. If this means a Russian veto in the Security Council, or an effort to water down or delay Ahtisaari's plan, the fragile peace in Kosovo will evaporate within days, and a new wave of violence -- possibly even another war -- will erupt. Ahtisaari's plan, probably the best possible under current circumstances, does not satisfy more extreme Albanians -- because it does not provide instant independence and because of its emphasis on protecting Serbs who chose to remain in Kosovo.
Yet instead of working to avert violence in Kosovo, Russia seems to be enjoying the opportunity to defy key Western countries, especially Germany and the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her superb special envoy, Ambassador Frank Wisner, have told Moscow and Belgrade that the United States supports the Ahtisaari plan, but until President Bush weighs in strongly with Putin (as President Bill Clinton did a decade ago with Boris Yeltsin), there is a serious risk Moscow will not get the message. That message should be simple: If Russia blocks the Ahtisaari plan, the chaos that follows will be Moscow's responsibility and will affect other aspects of Russia's relationships with the West.
Russia contends that the United Nations does not have the right to change an international border without the agreement of the country involved. But Kosovo is a unique case and sets no precedent for separatist movements elsewhere, because in 1999, with Russian support, the United Nations was given authority to decide the future of Kosovo.
Moscow's point about protecting "fraternal" Slav-Serb feelings is nonsense; everyone who has dealt with the Russians on the Balkans, as I did for several years, knows that their leadership has no feelings whatsoever for the Serbs. Russia is using Kosovo for its tactical advantage, as part of a strategy to reassert itself on the international stage. That is a legitimate goal, as long as Russia plays a constructive role -- but Moscow's recent behavior, from Georgia to Iran to some ugly domestic incidents, is not encouraging.
Now Kosovo is shaping up as the biggest international test yet of Vladimir Putin. If Moscow vetoes or delays the Ahtisaari plan, the Kosovar Albanians will declare independence unilaterally. Some countries, including the United States and many Muslim states, would probably recognize them, but most of the European Union would not. A major European crisis would be assured. Bloodshed would return to the Balkans. NATO, which is pledged to keep peace in Kosovo, could find itself back in battle in Europe.
Would the Russians really benefit from all this? Certainly not. European security and stability -- and Russia's relationship with the West -- are on the line.
Richard Holbrooke was the lead U.S. negotiator in the Dayton peace talks, which ended the war in Bosnia. He writes a monthly column for The Post.
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