Playing Games With Kosovo

Almost nine years after NATO's bombing campaign ended the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanian majority, Kosovo has finally declared its independence. It was immediately recognized by the United States, Britain and a number of other countries. But Russia, following Serbia's lead, has ostentatiously advertised its anger at the move. The shouting from Moscow continues, with Putin vigorously protesting and threatening to recognize separatist elements elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Why all the fuss? The anger of Serbian nationalists who burned the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade is easy enough to understand: they don't want to give up what they see as the touchstone of their national identity, the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo, where Serb fighters were roundly defeated by invading Turks in 1389. But why should Russia care so much about a remote and tiny province? Most explanations have hinged on the precedent this sets for secessionist populations throughout the former Soviet Union—the Chechens in Russia, the Abkhazians and Ossetians in Georgia, separatists in Moldova. And there's something to this argument.

But Moscow isn't truly worried the Chechens will cut loose: it has been years since Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, crushed the rebellion there and installed a loyal strongman in Grozny. The real reason for Putin's intransigence is that he sees Serbia as Russia's last slice of the former Yugoslavia still in Moscow's sphere of influence—and as Russia's final bulwark in Southeast Europe against the West. There's more than just 19th-century Pan-Slavism or 21st-century Russian pride at stake here. Russia's objections reflect pure geostrategic calculus.

The Soviets saw the map of Europe as a chessboard, and to some extent the Kremlin still does. And since 1989 that game has gone very badly for Russia indeed. First, starting in 1989, came the collapse of the communist regimes in the satellite nations of Eastern Europe: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union itself broke up into 11 newly independent states. Russia retained influence over the region and remained a superpower on the global stage—but barely, and only by virtue of its nuclear arsenal.

Despite the positive changes that followed, such as the democratizing of Russia and the liberalization of its economy, it was a time of deep humiliation. As one high-ranking Russian officer asked me at the first U.S.-Russian Joint Staff talks in 1994, "When will your NATO ships be in our port of Riga?" Of course, by then it wasn't their port at all; Latvia had already declared its independence. And by 2004, Latvia—along with the other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia—had become a proud member of NATO.

In the Balkans, the Russians had the same concern. In Moscow, one top Russian general warned me in 1995 that "we know what you Americans are up to. You're coming into our part of Europe, and you say you'll be gone in a year. But you won't be." I protested and he relented somewhat, telling me, "Don't worry, we would do the same thing in your position."

Westerners didn't hold triumphal parades at the end of the cold war, but much of the Russian leadership felt defeated by them, and by weakness and treachery within. During the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, the Russians squirmed under the embarrassment of having to idly stand by as NATO exercised its power in Moscow's backyard. At the end of the campaign, the Russians expressed their displeasure by outmarching NATO occupation forces and seizing the main airfield in Kosovo—probably hoping they could use it to split Kosovo and preserve Russian influence with the Serbs. But the gambit failed: Russian commanders agreed to serve under NATO authority and, after a couple of years, gave up and withdrew. Moscow sees Serbia as its final bulwark in the Balkans against the steady advance of the West.

In the nine years since, Russia under Putin has become less democratic at home and more assertive abroad. As NATO membership has grown and the EU has expanded to include Eastern European states like Slovenia—part of the former Yugoslavia—Russians have responded by buttressing their own nationalism. And where better to agitate for Russian honor than in Kosovo? Serb nationalism, raging against the Ottoman Empire, was a cause célèbre for the Russian tsars of the 19th century; it is only fitting that today it is once again the lever by which Russia can try to exercise influence in the West.

Of course, Serbia is only part of that story. Russia has also grumbled loudly about NATO's proposed missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic—Putin has warned they could lead to a new arms race. He threatened Georgia with recognition of its factional movements, and even suggested that Russian missiles might one day be aimed at Ukraine—all efforts to extend Russian influence. As the fires burned in the Balkans last week, it was easy to be distracted by the histrionics surrounding Kosovo's new statehood, and to fret about the precedent its independence sets. But the most important underlying story is whether Russia—and its friends in Serbia—can come to terms with a modern world demarcated not by old boundaries and geostrategic chess games, but by human freedoms and new opportunities.