For the Russian administration the Kosovo imbroglio has developed into an important strategic weapon. Due to the indecision exhibited by Western powers in confirming Kosovo's final status, Moscow views Kosovo as a valuable boost for its regional and global ambitions. By effectively vetoing Kosovo's supervised independence under the Western-sponsored Ahtisaari plan and maintaining an indefinite status quo in the region, Russia raises its international stature in several ways.
First, by denying statehood for Kosovo, the Kremlin can claim Russia is a major defender of international legality by its insistence on working through the United Nations Security Council. Of course, Russia would not allow the UNSC to interfere in its own neighborhood; for example, by approving a U.N. mission in territories that Moscow covets in Moldova and Georgia, let alone in pro-independence Chechnya.
Russia exploits the hesitation of the Bush administration to bypass the U.N., as it did before launching the Iraqi war. The U.S. seeks to rebuild its alliances and does not want to be condemned again as a hegemonic unilateralist. Meanwhile, many European Union governments do not want to act outside the U.N. framework as this could discredit their own global influence.
Second, Russia is posing as a promoter of multilateralism, where the U.N. process can serve its interests and undercut those of the U.S. Multilateralism can be a cover for inaction as multilateral institutions such as the U.N. are not only slow and cumbersome in making decisions but operate according to the lowest common denominator where the resistance of one capital can deny the interests of the majority.
Third, Moscow is posturing as a staunch protector of state sovereignty and national integrity by opposing the imposed breakup of a U.N. member state, Serbia. It thereby appeals to many U.N. members, especially authoritarian governments who preserve territories primarily by bullets and not ballots. At the same time, the U.S. is cast by Moscow as a maverick interfering in the internal affairs of allegedly vulnerable victims.
Simultaneously, Russian support for minority separatism in Moldova and Georgia and its manipulation of Russian ethnic grievances against indigenous governments in the Baltic States is depicted as a defense of human rights and valid support for self-determination.
Fourth, Kosovo forms part of a wider strategic agenda enabling Russia to elevate its international position, interpose in Balkan developments, promote splits within the EU, aggravate weaknesses in Western decisionmaking and construct a Eurasian "pole" as a counterbalance to the United States.
For the Putin administration, the birth of new pro-American states and the expansion of democracies in former communist territories presents a long-term threat to Russia's strategic designs. Democratic governments invariably seek membership in NATO and the EU to consolidate and enhance the reform process and provide permanent security and the assure independence. For Moscow, such steps undercut its influences in neighboring countries, shrink its regional power projection, and retard its ambitions as a revived superpower.
Russia feels more confident in realizing its aspirations where its neighbors are either predictable authoritarian states, isolated and marginalized countries with populist governments, weak states internally divided that cannot qualify for NATO or EU membership, or countries ruled by outright anti-American governments. A "frozen conflict" in Kosovo thereby reinforces Moscow's broader strategic objectives.
In addition, the Kremlin fears that an independent and pro-Western Kosovo may become a potential attraction for nations in the north Caucasus that increasingly resent centralized rule from Moscow and may seek their own statehood. The wide perception of Kosovo as a "Muslim" entity feeds Russia's anxieties that Kosovo may act as a model among its own Muslim populations. Hence, Kremlin propaganda depicts Kosovars as fundamentalists and terrorists to undercut international sympathy and support for the aspiring state.
Given the current feebleness of Western strategy, there is little reason for Russia to compromise over any plan for Kosovo, however many amendments are offered by Washington and Brussels. Opposition to the Ahtisaari plan has become a measure of Russia's newly found strength from which it is unlikely to back down unless some major concessions are offered or strategic retreats are initiated by the White House in other arenas.
In such circumstances, the U.N. Security Council process not only blocks Kosovo's statehood and may hinder the progress of Euro-Atlantic integration for the Western Balkans, but also allows Russia to restore its position as the pre-eminent anti-American power and a pretender to international leadership.
Unless the trans-Atlantic alliance stands firm and united to implement a credible plan for Kosovo's independence, Russia will increasingly benefit from Western division and indecision.
Janusz Bugajski is director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.