Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
In his speech Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to Kosovo six times, bizarrely calling its independence a precedent for Russia’s annexation of Crimea . In fact, the two episodes could hardly be more different. No doubt Putin is fixated on Kosovo because its breakaway from Serbia fuels a deep-seated Russian phobia and sense of humiliation at the hands of the West in the 1990s.
Despite the end of the Cold War, Putin and many of his compatriots cling to the view that NATO remains fundamentally threatening to Russia. The alliance’s intervention in the Bosnian civil war confirmed that fear because its principal targets were Bosnian Serbs who were “ethnically cleansing” and massacring Bosnian Muslims. For many Russians, the Serbs were first and foremost fellow Orthodox Slavs, not to be seen as perpetrators of Europe’s first act of genocide since World War II but as religious and linguistic kin protecting their communities — and as victims of NATO.
In 1999, the dictatorial Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, frustrated by his inability to expand his country into the Serb-populated areas of Bosnia, turned his fury on the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Much as Russians regard Ukraine as the cradle of their civilization, Serbs see Kosovo as hallowed ground, stained by the blood of their ancestors defeated by Ottoman invaders whose Albanian-speaking Muslim descendants make up the majority of modern Kosovo.
After diplomacy failed to stop Milosevic’s campaign of driving Kosovars out of their villages and slaughtering thousands in the process, NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days. Until this week, that period was, by far, the tensest in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.
During frequent trips I made to Moscow at the time, I heard numerous Russians, including pro-Western reformers, lament that the post-Cold War spirit would not survive NATO’s pummeling of Belgrade. Some high-level officials accused NATO of practicing for a future bombardment of Moscow in support of secessionists in the restive Muslim-dominated region of Chechnya. That was the Kosovo precedent they could imagine.
To end the crisis, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent an envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to Belgrade to pressure Milosevic into withdrawing his troops from Kosovo and accepting an international peacekeeping force that would include Russian units under U.S. command so as not to be formally part of NATO.
In June 1999, I led a team from the State Department, White House and Pentagon to coordinate final plans for the operation. Soon after landing, we sensed trouble. Chernomyrdin was politically isolated. His military minder, Gen. Leonid Ivashov, was in virtual mutiny against the deal on joint Russian-NATO deployment.
Yeltsin, we were told, was “indisposed,” a word accompanied by knowing looks that translated as drunk. The civilian officials we met with were visibly unnerved at the possibility of a military coup.
The one exception was Putin, whom I met for the first time. As head of the Kremlin security council, he was on the first rung of the ladder he would climb quickly to the presidency.
In our meeting, he managed to seem both relaxed and on guard. He subtly but unmistakably put distance between himself and Chernomyrdin. His personal touches were pointed. For no reason other than to show he had read my KGB dossier, he dropped the names of two Russian poets I had studied in college.
During the meeting, my State Department colleague Victoria Nuland (now assistant secretary of state for Europe) passed me a note saying that Gen. Ivashov had just issued a threat to our Pentagon companions — who were in a meeting at the defense ministry — that the Russian army might break from NATO and deploy into Kosovo on its own, thereby turning what was supposed to be a collaborative operation into a confrontation.
When I read Nuland’s note aloud, Putin smugly waved it off and feigned puzzlement about who Ivashov was, which was patently implausible. His overall message was twofold: He knew details from my distant past but wasn’t going to let me know anything about what was happening in the here and now — or what would happen next.
Within hours, several small Russian units that had been monitoring the cease-fire in Bosnia dashed across southern Serbia into Kosovo, cheered as saviors by Serbs along the way.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a denial and then a lame statement about how the rogue operation was an accident. The Russian contingent hunkered down at an airfield outside the capital of Kosovo, while a multinational NATO force rolled in from Macedonia. What looked at first to be a mouse-that-roared farce turned dangerous when it appeared that the Russian military might airlift reinforcements and trigger a shooting war.
Yeltsin reemerged, none too steadily, in time to defuse the crisis and put the original deal back on track. Not until nine years later did Kosovo declare its independence. And, of course, it has not been annexed by Albania.
Putin’s role in that narrowly avoided military collision 15 years ago remains a mystery, but his attitude was clear then and relevant today. During a dangerous power vacuum in Moscow — when partnership between Russia and the West was at the breaking point; when Russian armed forces, fed up with having to make nice with NATO, took matters into their own hands and tried to rush to the aid of fellow Slavs — Yeltsin’s soon-to-be handpicked successor seemed to be relishing the moment.
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