Among the reasons the Russians have offered to justify their aggressive counterattack into Georgian territory proper during the recent (ongoing?) Russo-Georgian war was Kosovo. When the United States strong-armed (wheedled? persuaded? bribed?) most of the Western countries into recognizing Kosovo as an independent state (although one completely dependent on NATO for almost all government services and the force required to back up an ersatz government, but leave that minor issue aside), the Russians opposed the move, based on strategic considerations and a centuries-long sense of alliance with the Serbs that may or may not be rational.
Putin warned then that two could play at the game of recognizing and nurturing into a position of dependence/vassaldom (to be called "independence," of course) regions in which a substantial portion of the population wanted to separate itself from the state that had legal or formal but not real authority over it – like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are legally recognized by most of the vaunted "international community" as being part of Georgia but have in fact been separate entities since 1991 or so.
Of course like most masters of nation-states, Putin would be unlikely to want to see this principle recognized in a neutral fashion. Under it, Chechnya would have a legitimate argument to want to be a separate or at least highly autonomous region, and Putin "made his bones" with the Russian power centers and to some extent the people precisely by crushing those aspirations for autonomy in a particularly bloody and brutal fashion. But then most rulers interpret purported principles to suit their interests of the moment.
The point is that Russian attitudes toward Kosovo – along with traditional Russian desires in the political classes to control the "near abroad" – gave Russian leaders the capacity to justify what some would call a disproportionate response to Georgian aggression. George Friedman of Stratfor.com, however, has recently published an interesting analysis that posits a longer and more complex chain of relationships to suggest that Kosovo’s contribution to the current conflict is more powerful than generally perceived, and lies further in the past.
I think it’s reasonably fair to say that George Friedman and Stratfor see themselves as cold-eyed realists when they analyze political and especially great-power activities and relationships. People with power do certain things to maintain, protect, and expand their power, and that’s just the way of it. What great powers do bears little relationship to the kind of morality we would hope individual people would adopt to live among others with the minimum of conflict and trouble. Great powers should probably be viewed as amoral rather than immoral, but however you view them, if you want to understand the way the world works it’s best to not waste much time condemning or justifying. Nation-states do what nation-states do, and we live in a world (predominantly) of nation-states, so get over it. (That may not be a completely accurate characterization, and I’m open to amendment and clarification.)
Anyway, viewing the world this way can help us see larger patterns with a certain amount of clarity, and Friedman offers a bit of it in his piece, from which I intend to quote at some length.
After acknowledging the strong likelihood of a permanent Russian imperial impulse, he writes, "There is, however, another way to view this, the context of Russian perceptions of U.S. and European intentions and of U.S. and European perceptions of Russian capabilities. This context shaped the policies that led to the Russo-Georgian war. And those attitudes can only be understood if we trace the question of Kosovo, because the Russo-Georgian war was forged over the last decade over the Kosovo question."
So he walks us through the breakup of former Yugoslavia, noting that "the borders of the republics did not adhere to the distribution of nationalities." Is that not a fundamental problem in many places? So Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, and so on fought and eventually put the fighting aside for a while, though the Dayton Accords may not be tenable permanently (my opinion, but one I suspect Friedman wouldn’t disagree about). He writes, "The Dayton Accords were built around the principle that there could be no adjustment in the borders of the former Yugoslav republics." So Serbs were left to live under Bosnian rule, Albanians under Serbian rule, and so on.
Let me interject that my understanding of the international system the powers tried to put in place when they formed the United Nations after the catastrophe of World War II was essentially this principle of sacrosanct borders. Henceforth military action or other uses of force to change existing borders was to be deemed illegitimate aggression. Of course, supposed acceptance of that principle has not stopped a great deal of such aggression, but perhaps it has been less than might have been without the "international system." However, I would argue that trying to live by the principle of sacrosanct borders is inherently unstable because so many of those borders are accidents of history and circumstance that have left festering pockets of people all over the world who resent the people who are ruling them.
Rather than declaring borders sacrosanct, it might be more helpful to try to develop more peaceful ways of changing borders – one imagines referenda, but one can see complications. And the rulers of nation-states tend to see the territory they have now as utterly essential, even if holding the territory costs more in blood and treasure than letting it go would – see Tibet and the Uighur regions of western China. Perhaps no solution will be feasible until the era of the "sovereign state" is superseded by the era of the sovereign individual, but while I think that will happen eventually, I don’t expect it very soon.
But back to Friedman’s story: "In the late 1990s, a crisis began to develop in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Over the years, Albanians had moved into the province in a broad migration. By 1997, the province was overwhelmingly Albanian, although it had not only been historically part of Serbia but also its historical foundation." The Albanians sought independence, the Serbs resisted it with force, and most Western countries feared that the crimes against humanity that had occurred earlier in Bosnia were happening again in Kosovo. So they believed exaggerated claims and dragooned NATO into authorizing the bombing the U.S. and others wanted to do, because the UN wouldn’t authorize it due to the Russian and Chinese veto power.
Therefore, Friedman argues, "This transformed NATO from a military alliance into a quasi-United Nations. What happened in Kosovo was that NATO took on the role of peacemaker, empowered to determine if intervention was necessary, allowed to make the military intervention, and empowered to determine the outcome." However, since Russia didn’t consider the bombing campaign in Kosovo necessary and was not part of or likely to become part of NATO, this transformation of the nature of NATO caused the Russians to see NATO as a threat, an instrument of Western imperial aggression bent on "encircling" Mother Russia and thereby enfeebling and eventually ruling it. Nation-states tend to think that way.
However, in the late 1990s, Russia was weak and divided and could do little or nothing to resist what it saw – remember the dueling perceptions game – as relentless and purposeful NATO aggression aimed at Russia. This was fed by the Russians being excluded from the "peacekeeping force" that followed. So "The Kosovo war directly effected the fall of Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin. The faction around Putin saw Yeltsin as an incompetent bungler who allowed Russia to be doubly betrayed. The Russian perception of the war directly led to the massive reversal in Russian policy we see today." The Russians had to bide their time, but they meant to resist what they say as NATO attempts at encirclement.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. and Western European side NATO expansion was perceived not as aggression at all, but as a way to reward regimes that adopted some rough semblance of democratic rule with a cursory bow toward the rule of law and a market economy with what might be seen as a Western Alliance Seal of Approval. We’re just encouraging democracy and peaceful intentions, Western leaders said, because everybody knows that more democracy means more peace, since democracies don’t attack one another (as if). No one should see it as threatening.
But the Russians do see it as threatening, and they view proposals to include Georgia and Ukraine in NATO, pushed hard by the Bush administration but resisted by enough Western European countries that it is unlikely to happen, as naked aggression. They’re able to see themselves not as the aggressors in Georgia but as defenders of their legitimate security interests against a systematic assault on their very sovereignty. Nation-states and those who run them tend to see things that way.
I take from all this the lesson that military interventions have consequences whose full import might not be apparent for years or decades later, but more often than not those unintended consequences amount to blowback. Thus Russia, in part because of high oil prices and more focused rulers, has been able to reassert its imperial interests in Georgia at a time when the United States, in part because of past interventions and frittering away so many resources and credibility in Iraq, can do nothing about it but unwisely bluster, exposing its ineffectiveness and foolishness to all those in the world with eyes to see.
Oh, what a tangled web we begin when first we start to intervene.
Does this presage the splintering and eventual retreat of the American empire? That would be nice, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for prophecy.