In his February 22, 2022 televised address to the nation on the growing crisis in Ukraine, President Joe Biden expressed outrage at Russia’s actions. The day before, the government of Vladimir Putin had recognized two secessionist regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk, as independent states. He also announced the deployment of Russian peacekeeping troops in these territories. “Who in the name of the Lord does Putin think gives them the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belongs to their neighbors?” Biden railed. “This is a flagrant violation of international law.”
It was a valid complaint. However, one must ask: how is Russia’s action different from what the United States and its NATO allies did to Serbia in 1999? In this case, an alliance supposedly created for purely defensive purposes launched a seventy-eight-day offensive air war against a country that had arguably not even committed an act of aggression against a member of NATO. At the end of this assault, which killed hundreds of Serb civilians and devastated the country’s infrastructure, NATO leaders forced the government of Slobodan Milosevic to relinquish control of the Serbian province of Kosovo to international control. This transfer was carried out under a fig leaf resolution adopted by the UN Security Council despite the reluctance and reluctance of Moscow. UN (mainly NATO) ‘peacekeepers’ have stepped in to enforce the diktat of the alliance, just as Russian ‘peacekeepers’ have now deployed to Donetsk and Luhansk to enforce Kremlin orders .
The parallels between the two events should make current Western leaders more than a little tricky. NATO’s violations of international law did not end with a war of aggression, the administrative amputation of Kosovo from Serbia and the deployment of occupation forces. Nine years later, the Western powers engaged in a brazenly cynical maneuver to grant Kosovo full independence. Kosovo wanted to declare its formal independence from Serbia, but such a decision would face a certain Russian (and probably Chinese) veto in the UN Security Council (UNSC). Washington and an ad hoc coalition of most European Union countries brazenly bypassed the UNSC and endorsed Pristina’s declaration of independence.
Russian leaders protested vehemently and warned that unauthorized action by the West was setting a dangerous and destabilizing precedent in international affairs. Washington dismissed their complaints, arguing that the situation in Kosovo was unique. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns explicitly made this argument in a February 2008 State Department briefing. Because the situation was unique, he insisted, Western policy in Kosovo did not create any precedent compared to other situations of ethnic secession. The hubris and illogicality of the American position were breathtaking.
Western powers soon discovered that simply saying that their actions in Kosovo did not set a precedent did not. Russia demonstrated this point a few months later. The Kremlin exploited a military confrontation with Georgia to reinforce the secession of two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and ratify Russia’s de facto control over the two entities. George W. Bush’s administration condemned the Kremlin’s actions, as did Washington’s NATO allies. But just as Russia couldn’t do much about NATO’s conduct in Kosovo, so the Western powers (short of starting a war against Russia) couldn’t do much about NATO’s conduct in Kosovo. Moscow’s interference in Georgia.
The Kosovo precedent haunted the United States again in 2014 when the Kremlin boosted its military presence in the Crimean peninsula and used it to “supervise” a referendum in which Crimea voted to secede. from Ukraine. This step was a prelude to the annexation of the peninsula by Russia. Washington reacted with even greater anger than following Moscow’s amputation of Georgian territories. At a press conference, President Barack Obama fumed that Russia could not be allowed to redraw “Europe’s borders with the barrel of a gun”. He didn’t bother to explain how the US and NATO didn’t do this with Kosovo, and the usual members of the news media didn’t bother to ask.
Now, with the Kremlin’s moves regarding Donetsk and Lugansk, the Kosovo precedent has come back to haunt Washington and its NATO allies for a third time. Even the argument that Kosovo’s predominantly Albanian population wanted to secede from Serbia and that Belgrade’s brutal treatment of the province justified NATO intervention puts supporters on a slippery slope. Russian officials could use similar justifications to justify their actions in eastern Ukraine.
There is no doubt that many (probably most) residents of Donetsk and Luhansk resent the pro-Western regime in Kiev and do not want to live under its control. The rebellion that began almost eight years ago might not have survived without Russian military support, but the sentiment for the rebellion was real and widespread. The eastern region of Ukraine differs from the western part of the country in terms of language, religion, and economy. The easterners’ primary language is Russian instead of Ukrainian, their religion is Eastern Orthodox instead of Roman Catholic, and their economy emphasizes heavy industry with extensive trade ties to Russia. instead of light industry with primary trade links to Central and Western Europe. .
These differences have created serious tensions for years. It is no coincidence that the two regions were bastions of political support for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president elected in 2010. Eastern Ukrainians were deeply resentful of pro-Western protesters in Kiev who illegally toppled his government, with more than a little support. of the United States and several governments of the European Union. The ongoing rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk soon followed.
One can make a plausible case that secession (and even a subsequent merger with Russia, in Crimea) is reasonable for these two regions. However, the current Kremlin measures further undermine international law and destabilize the global system.
The international community must adopt a coherent set of rules for such situations. Washington and other NATO capitals cannot insist on strict respect for the territorial integrity of countries and the sanctity of borders when it suits Western policy, but adopt the opposite standard whenever it suits Western politics. In their handling of the Kosovo issue, the NATO powers have done just that, and the brazen hypocrisy keeps coming back to haunt them.
Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and Managing Editor at the National Interest, is the author of twelve books and more than 950 articles on international affairs.