Putin Pulls a Kosovo

Kosovo. noun: a part of a sovereign state where a separatist movement is supported by a superpower and pronounced a sovereign state itself.

To pull a Kosovo: the action of a superpower to recognize a separatist region as a sovereign state.

Putin just pulled a Kosovo. Recall that in 2008—9 years after NATO had been used for the very first time ever in warfare (to bomb Belgrade, the first such bombing of a European capital since 1945, and to carve out the NATO protectorate of Kosovo in the heart of historical Serbia—the U.S. announced it was recognizing Kosovo as an independent nation. The NATO bombing had been justified by Clinton as necessary to prevent “genocide” (the same excuse as used by Hillary in destroying Libya in 2011); some NATO allies participated reluctantly. When the announcement was made in 2008 the Spaniards and Greeks were indignant, noting that they’d agreed to participate on the assurance that Serbia would not be divided. NATO members Spain, Greece, Romania, and Hungary do not recognize Kosovo.

The Russians protested this recognition, noting especially the conditions of Serbian Orthodox communities in northern Kosovo, whose medieval monasteries had been destroyed by Kosovar vandals. They protested the U.S support for a government drawn from the Kosovo Liberation Army, who had been described by the U.S. State Department as “terrorists,” and whose chief sources of foreign earnings were human trafficking, organ trafficking, and heroin trafficking. But the U.S. brushed such protests aside. Condi Rice, U.S. Secretary of State, mindful that international law bans such behavior, explained with a dismissive smile that this was a sui generis thing.

Except, it wasn’t. It led in short order to the Russian support for South Ossetia and Georgia, which never wanted to be part of Georgia after the collapse of the USSR. Moscow then recognized these two republics, pulling its own Kosovo, or two of them. When the U.S. engineered the Feb. 2014 Maidan coup, Russia responded by supporting the Donbas separatist cause. Now, in response to Biden’s renewed effort to force it to passively accept infinite NATO expansion, and to rally his shaky allies to the great conflict to come, Russia pulls yet another Kosovo.

I forgot to mention the U.S. pulling another Kosovo little noticed during the Trump term, recognizing Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The U.S. had always agreed with the world that the former Spanish colony had the right to independence and did not recognize the Moroccan seizure in 1975. But now it’s decided to recognize its ally’s baseless claim. And nobody else on earth except the Israelis recognizes Syria’s Golan Heights as part of the state of Israel; Trump gifted this recognition to the Israelis and Biden continues it.

The renewed Cold War (following the pathetic Yeltsin interval, and Putin’s early outreach) began with a Kosovo, an arrogant statement by an expanding empire that it could invade countries and divide them at will, breaking the erstwhile rules because it has the power to do so. Stage One might be ending here, with Putin pulling today’s Kosovo, This move might calm the crisis short-term; the alternatives were quite ugly.

In saying we no longer recognize Luhansk and Donetsk as part of Ukraine, Russia is saying that the Minsk II agreements, that Kyiv has not implemented in party due to neofascist opposition, have failed. It will no longer try to observe them. It will station troops in them as peacekeeping forces, rather like the U.S. does in Kosovo.

Is it an invasion? On the one hand, no, it’s not. On the other, Biden has predicted invasion with such certitude, so consistently, it would be embarrassing not to have one. So the obvious temptation is to say that this recognition is itself the prophesy fulfilled. If you can call the peaceful re-annexation of Crimea in 2014 an “invasion” of Ukraine, surely you can call Russia’s recognition of these Kosovos an invasion too!

Thus Biden gets his invasion, Putin gets hit by sanctions, differences within NATO grow, the U.S. public remains divided and confused on this issue, Russia grows closer to China, and the Republicans sweep the midterms. Maybe Nord Stream II will be suspended, and the Germans will freeze a bit to show alliance loyalty. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Scholtz reasons, “It’s a good thing that all they did was recognize those republics like you made us recognize Kosovo. How does that differ from them recognizing Abkhazia? How harmful is it to us? Putin has made the world realize he thinks NATO is a threat to Russia. We Germans, as Europeans, whose country has been invaded many times as the U.S. has not, understand our fellow Europeans’ needs for security. Anyway, their recognition should not affect our energy partnership.”

To such reasoning, Biden and Blinken will respond: “How dare you try to split the Alliance!” They cannot imagine a world without NATO, and they don’t want you to. More than that, they don’t want you to THINK about NATO, or ask what it even is. They want you to forget Kosovo. Ah yes, my students weren’t born at that time And no one’s mentioned to them its role in regenerating the Cold War, whose current phase is perhaps peaking as we speak.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu