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Russia’s move in Ukraine has parallels with US actions in Kosovo

Both Moscow and Washington have violated international law in Europe when it suits their purposes and satisfies their quests for power.

Analysis | Europe

As Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his recognition of the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, a clear violation of international law, condemnations rained in from all quarters in Washington and other NATO capitals. Among those was Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said in an official statement condemning Russia’s “blatant violation of international law” that “states have an obligation not to recognize a new state created through the threat or use of force.” 

But Secretary Blinken must remember 1999, when he was, quite coincidentally, Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council. That was the year NATO proactively waged a 78-day war against Yugoslavia to ensure its break up and the creation of a new nation state — Kosovo. 

This war was waged without U.N. authorization, and was a rank violation of international law. It was conducted based on a new principle conjured up by the United States and some of its partners called the Responsibility to Protect  or R2P — the idea that major human rights violations justify the “international community” intervening militarily in any part of the world. While persecution of human beings is not acceptable anywhere, the highly arbitrary use (and non-use) of the principle by a set of powerful states against those less able reeked of opportunism even back then. 

More than two decades after it was concocted, Kosovo is still not recognized by many major nations including Brazil, Greece, Mexico, India, Russia, Spain, China, and others. It remains a rump state of sorts, ill-governed and under the NATO shadow. It was also the site of a massive American military base Camp Bondsteel, from which notorious U.S. “rendition” flights were undertaken and prisoners tortured during the grave violations of the “War on Terror.” 

If Kosovo was just an exception to the otherwise strong record of respecting international law, it would still be condemnable but perhaps salvageable. But Kosovo is just one example of many. And we don’t have to go all the way to the Middle East — they are to be found right within Europe itself.

When the ethnic Serb inhabitants of the Krajina region of Croatia, then ruled by the authoritarian Franjo Tudjman (who revived Ustashe-era fascist symbols from World War II), wished to secede after facing the brunt of Croatian nationalism, Washington was opposed. But the United States went further. President Clinton lent his (at least) political backing to Operation Storm — a Croatian army offensive that committed major human rights violations in Krajina and ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the region. In general, the United States built up a repressive Tudjman-ruled Croatia as a means to balance the power of an authoritarian Milosevic-run Serbia. 

This sordid story kept repeating during the Balkan wars and continues to this very day. When Bosnia’s Serb minority wished to secede, they were treated as pariahs in Washington. (Later, they discredited themselves through brutal massacres of Bosnian Muslims, such as the one in Srebrenica.) Currently, Serbs in Bosnia have made a major push for extreme autonomy, including having their own army. Washington has responded by sanctioning their leader. The fact is neither Bosnia’s Serbs nor its Croats seem to wish to live under the current arrangements. Bosnian legitimacy is so wafer-thin that the state is effectively a European colony. A de facto viceroy from Brussels retains extraordinary powers over its government. 

The same goes for Kosovo, repressed in the past by Milosevic’s Serbia. NATO’s war resulted in major atrocities and ethnic cleansing of the minority Serb and Roma populations by the U.S.-backed Kosovo Liberation Army as well as persecution of the Serbs who inhabit the sliver of a territory in the border region of Mitrovica. Yet, the demands of the Serb population in Mitrovica to secede from Kosovo and merge their tiny region into neighboring Serbia is seen as an unacceptable transgression. 

Why is there one principle for Croatian Serbs and another for Yugoslav Croats? One standard for Kosovar Albanians and another for Kosovar Serbs? One rule for Bosnian Serbs and another for Bosnian Muslims? Should it be a surprise that Ukrainian Russians are just the latest subjects of this list?

In Ukraine, President Putin has (thus far) been clever in backing the secession or annexation of only those territories that are dominated by Russian-speakers. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine mostly support Moscow, and their cultural and linguistic rights have been increasingly violated by a nationalistic government in Kyiv. This has been used by Russia as a means to intervene and create new facts on the ground. 

The point here is not that secession of an unhappy population should be an automatic right. In fact, stability and peace between major powers depends on a strong presumption against coercive secession. But Washington’s invocation of principles, as Blinken did against Russian violations in Ukraine, falls flat when seen in the light of the United States’ own past and present transgressions right next door, in the very same continent of Europe. When rules are used so cynically, realpolitik will prevail all round.

It is not, and never was, about international law and a “rules-based” order. Once a state or actor is defined as illegitimate in Washington, almost anything goes. This is about power, not principle.

President Clinton greets troops at Tuzla Air Force Base in Bosnia, December 22, 1997 (Credit: William J. Clinton Presidential Library)
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