Russian troops at Pristina airport in 1999, where they upstaged NATO by arriving first and causing consternation in Western capitals
Don’t take it to the bank or anything, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re soon going to see something of a reprise of a bizarre moment at the end of the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Having bombed Serbia into submission and secured a U.N. resolution for an international force to enter Kosovo, the U.S. and its NATO partners were stunned to find themselves upstaged by a Russian armored column that raced into Pristina before them, and took control of the airport for the best part of two weeks.
With the NATO powers, or most of them, again having ridden roughsod over international law in order to shepherd Kosovo to independence, Moscow currently doesn’t recognize the legality or legitimacy of what has transpired there. And I see a perfect storm taking shape: Serbia is furious that the price of Milosevic’s brutality is losing part of their sovereign territory; the Serbs of northern Kosovo have no intention of living under the rule of the avenging ethnic cleansers and Greater Albania nationalists of the new government in Pristina, and are showing a willingness to fight to remain administratively connected with Serbia.
And, very importantly, the Serbs of Northern Kosovo have actually called for a return of Russian troops to the area. President Putin has responded by ordering his government to prepare to deliver humanitarian aid to the Serbs of Kosovo.
The Serb government, meanwhile, has demanded partition of the territory as a solution to the crisis, leaving the northern third of Kosovo inside Serbia even if it has lost the Albanian-majority south. The Kosovo government, flush with NATO backing for its independence, has rejected the proposal.
But Russia doesn’t recognize the authority of the government in Pristina, which it brands as a band of “ex-terrorists,” nor does it recognize the legality of the status-change in Kosovo that NATO has engineered. I suspect that the “humanitarian aid” being planned by Moscow will arrive in Mitrovice and other parts of Northern Kosovo on the back of armored columns traveling through Serbia. And its function will be to cement the partition of Kosovo, to reunite its northern third with Serbia.
Moscow has shown little inclination to accomodate Washington, and would incline to pushing back at what it sees as NATO encroachment on its turf across a wide front — particularly when the murky legality of Kosovo’s independence presents such an opportunity. And, of course, with NATO’s main players bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin may well see an opportunity.
The nationalist government in Pristina, of course, would be inclined to resist, assuming that NATO would come to its rescue as it did when the same element — then under the rubric of the Kosovo Liberation Army, listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. — launched the guerrilla campaign of provocations that triggered Milosevic’s vicious ethnic-cleansing drive, and brought NATO’s intervention to bomb the Serbs out of the province.