Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Seize the Opportunity with Russia on Kosovo

Seize the Opportunity with Russia on Kosovo

Spceial to's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, October 24, 2007; 12:00 AM

They tried to put a good face on it, but the truth is that Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly humiliated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during their recent meeting in Moscow. Before even hearing the Administration's latest pitch on missile defense, Putin heaped scorn, even raising serious new objections.

Whatever one thinks of missile defense, the dressing down of Rice and Gates marks a new low in U.S.-Russian relations. Appeals to shared values-- and those aimed at shared interests -- are falling on deaf Russian ears.

It is now unmistakably clear that getting Russia's attention on the Iranian threat and a host of other issues will require action, not talk.

Fortunately, Putin has created an ideal opportunity for Washington to score a victory and re-orient Moscow toward cooperation. The opportunity is Kosovo.

President Putin has seized the dispute over Kosovo's final status as one more means of reasserting Russia's global authority. But he has overplayed his hand, snubbing not only the U.S., but the UN, whose Secretary General has endorsed a compromise plan for supervised independence of the former Serbian province, along with near-autonomy for Kosovo's Serbian minority. So far, Putin has exploited perennial European divisions over the Balkans that put strong U.S. allies such as Britain and France against those European capitals who are either sympathetic to the Serb position or worried about a messy situation that would ensue without a UN blessing for independence.

But these concerns pale next to the threat that the Russian challenge poses not only for Kosovo, but for the overall Western strategy to calm the still-troublesome region. Beyond asserting Russia's voice on behalf of its client, Putin is also intent on transforming Serbia into a bulwark against European Union and NATO enlargement. Indeed, the obedient Serbian prime minister now advocates a "third way" between West and East and scorns the need for Belgrade to join NATO, raising the prospect of a fundamental reorientation away from Euro-Atlantic integration.

Belgrade's position has severe consequences for Europe since its grand strategy is for all the former Yugoslav states to narrow their differences through accession to the EU and NATO. But thus far not one former Yugoslav state which suffered major conflict has entered either organization. And the most fractious of all, Bosnia, has had serious setbacks over the past year, with its Serbian and Muslim leaders engaging in incendiary rhetoric not seen since the end of the war in part because of the Kosovo issue.

Three key errors by the Administration have permitted Kosovo to fester to Russia's advantage. First, Washington failed to see how Russian objectives were evolving under Putin. Like many allies in Europe, Washington believed Moscow would bark its objections over plans to grant Kosovo independence, but incorrectly assumed that Russia, as in years past, would eventually fall into line with a few face-saving concessions.

Second, the White House repeated the core mistake of the early 1990s, when the Yugoslav crisis threatened to tear apart trans-Atlantic relations. It allowed disputes in Europe to postpone concerted action.

Instead of seizing on a broad consensus among the major powers that the status quo in Kosovo had to change, and move swiftly toward supervised independence on the basis of the UN plan, persistent delays have actually deepened Europe's divisions. Each postponement signaled to Belgrade and to Moscow that the West lacked resolve, and this has enhanced Russia's assertiveness. As a result, the inevitable reckoning over Kosovo has become even more complex and conflictive.

Third, the Administration continues to participate in utterly fruitless diplomacy. As is clear to all informed observers, there is zero possibility of a negotiated solution between Kosovo's independence-demanding Albanians (who comprise over 90 percent of the population) and Serbia (which continues to claim a territory over which it lost control eight years ago following a NATO intervention provoked by the mass expulsion of Albanians.) Another "deadline" looms, but it is likely that Russia will demand yet another extension for more "negotiations."

After the recent humiliation in Moscow, it is crucial for Washington to take the lead on Kosovo, galvanized by the understanding that what happens in the Balkans matters not only for the people of that region, but also for the West's relationship with Russia. There are allies in Europe who grasp that the last chance to deal with Kosovo is rapidly approaching. And many allies also realize that Europe's energy dependence on Russia makes it more important to show mettle and unity on threats to core European security interests. With American leadership the EU can be mobilized into concerted action as witnessed during the NATO interventions that ended the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. At the same time, Washington must work closely with allies to develop follow-on plans for the enhanced EU and NATO missions in the new state.

Dealing conclusively with Kosovo is no longer simply about successful U.S.-European involvement in the Balkans. It is now about our relationship with Russia and whether Moscow acquires veto rights over Euro-Atlantic security. Vladimir Putin has created an opportunity to show the world that shared values still prevail across the Atlantic and across Europe. It's time to seize it.

Janusz Bugajski is Director of the New European Democracies Project at CSIS in Washington. Edward Joseph is visiting scholar and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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