Kosovo: Russia plays hardball

Exactly how far Russia will go in defence of Serbia’s rights in Kosovo is a question of pressing importance now that UN Security Council negotiations to agree conditional independence for the breakaway province have ground to an ignominious halt. Western countries, including Britain and France, have consistently underestimated Russian resolve. By tabling a UN resolution, they tried to call Moscow’s bluff. But President Vladimir Putin icily stared them down. Last Friday, they blinked first.

Previous miscalculations over Kosovo nearly caused a physical collision in June 1999, when Russian paratroopers made an overland dash to occupy Pristina airport, pre-empting

Nato’s peacekeepers. General Wesley Clark, Nato’s commander, ordered 500 British and French troops to bar their way.

A clash was narrowly avoided, in part because British General Sir Mike Jackson reportedly told Gen Clark: “I’m not going to start the third world war for you.” Looking at the latest Kosovo chapter, it seems obvious that Putin, emboldened by Russia’s oil-fuelled resurgence, was unlikely to take a softer line than his weak, discredited predecessor Boris Yeltsin. If anything, he could raise the stakes yet further.

If pushed, Moscow has a range of options. It could strengthen traditional political and military cooperation with Serbia’s new government and support for Kosovo’s Serb minority. It may finalise its withdrawal from the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, potentially raising tensions across eastern Europe. The Kosovo stand-off is already dangerously mixed up with Russian retaliation over US missile defence plans. Sharpening disagreement may also encourage Serb nationalist and irredentist forces and deepen Belgrade’s EU scepticism.

In theory, Serbia hopes to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Brussels in October. But Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s PM, warned that the EU was not everything. “The offer is like this: if you want Europe, you can forget Kosovo. If you want Kosovo, you can forget Europe. Things cannot be like that. It’s indecent,” he said last week.

Nor would Belgrade countenance attempts to cut a deal via the six-country Kosovo Contact Group, said Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic. Only the Security Council could decide status issues. In an echo of Iraq, Russia’s foreign ministry said: “Attempts to bypass the UN will contradict all international agreements on Kosovo, destabilise the Balkans and encourage separatists the world over.” Serbia says it simply wants talks without preconditions . Yet far from seeking to calm matters in the wake of their UN debacle, it is as though the US and its partners have grown deaf as well as dumb.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, insists: “We are committed to an independent Kosovo and we will get there one way or another.” Amid rising concern that the Bush administration, with western Europe’s connivance, is acting irresponsibly, Rice will follow her July 23 meeting with Kosovan leaders in Washington with talks with Serbia’s foreign minister. The Contact Group, which includes Russia, is also due to meet in Berlin. But all this is whistling in the dark. The fundamental disagreement over Kosovo’s future, dating back to the summer of 1999, remains entrenched. And history suggests there may be more grave miscalculations to come. — The Guardian