Mystery in Moscow

Crisis in the Caucasus took an unexpected twist this week. As Russian troops pulled out of Georgia, their demolition of American-built military bases nearly complete, the government in Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Until now, Moscow’s official policy of support to the breakaway regions stopped short of recognition – even in the wake of the U.S.-EU severing of Kosovo from Serbia earlier this year.

Strongly worded condemnations of Russia’s action came on Tuesday from the very same countries that just a few months earlier recognized the "independence" of Kosovo. Few in Washington, Paris or London seemed to notice the hypocrisy; to them, Kosovo was a "unique case" that "set no precedent" whatsoever – because they said so.

All the belligerent posturing is making it difficult to understand why exactly Dimitri Medvedev decided to recognize the two breakaway provinces, already virtually independent since 1992.

A Mistake… Maybe

There was no pressure on Moscow to act. Both Ossetia and Abkhazia have been de facto independent since 1992. Sure, the legislature passed a resolution endorsing their independence, but it was non-binding. The Georgian threat, embodied in the belligerent Saakashvili regime and its NATO-trained and equipped military, was largely neutralized by August 15. Moscow could have sat back and waited for the angry Georgians to depose their tie-chewing American president, then negotiated a peace granting independence to the disputed regions in exchange for some kind of incentive for Tbilisi.

By recognizing the two provinces, the argument goes, Moscow completely antagonized the Georgians, irritated the West, and undermined its own principled foreign policy of insisting on international law (specifically when it comes to the illegal secession of Kosovo).

Of course, given that Georgia was already a 100% client state of Washington, and that no matter what Russia did or did not do it would still be demonized in the West, those two points hardly seem relevant. What about the principle of sovereignty, then? This is the truly puzzling part.

By claiming that Ossetia and Abkhazia simply followed the Kosovo precedent, Russia effectively abandoned the moral high ground from which it criticized NATO’s aggression in the Balkans, and admitted that the world order is now based on the pernicious doctrine of "might makes right" and "whatever we can get away with." Washington and Brussels have operated from those premises for years, but their results have been less than stellar. It was precisely the insistence of rising powers like Russia, China and India on existing international law – while its self-proclaimed guardians violated it left and right – that made their challenge to Atlantic hegemony that much stronger.

The Serbian Angle

What does Moscow gain from abandoning the defense of sovereignty? There does not seem to be a satisfactory answer at the present time. However, looking at Serbia could help explain why Moscow may have felt it had nothing to gain from staying the course.

Legendary Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who passed away recently, argued that the 1999 Kosovo war shattered the illusions of Russians about the West. It cannot be a coincidence that very soon after Yeltsin had turned Belgrade over to NATO’s tender mercies, he was out – and Putin was in. While one ought to be cautious not to overestimate the influence of Serbian affairs on Russian policy, ignoring it altogether – as Western media and politicians tend to do – is downright stupid.

For all the talk of a "historical alliance," relations between Serbia and Russia were actually pretty cold for most of the 20th century, mostly because of Communism. In 1991, the Milosevic government supported the August coup; the coup failed, and so did the Soviet Union, which Boris Yeltsin dissolved precisely the way Yugoslavia was soon to disintegrate (over Serbian objections).

Moscow’s protests over the NATO air war in 1999 were dismissed in the West as sentimental – but they had less to do with Serbia and more to do with NATO spreading and assuming an offensive role.

Given that the coalition that overthrew Milosevic in 2000 was organized by the U.S. – this was later replicated as "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia – Moscow did not have much of a relationship with DOS. Only in 2005, after Washington launched the crusade for Kosovo’s separation, did the desperate Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica find a sympathetic ear in Moscow. Last year, Serbia even signed a deal to sell its national oil conglomerate NIS to the Russian giant Gazprom, and become a conduit for the "South Stream" pipeline.

However, in February this year the political situation in Serbia changed drastically, with the re-election of the slavishly pro-American and pro-EU president Boris Tadic. Following the general elections in May, his Democratic Party succeeded in capturing the legislature as well. Belgrade stopped fighting the seizure of Kosovo – except rhetorically – and the "South Stream" deal got bogged down in red tape. Russians suddenly found themselves being more Serb than the Serbs.

It is entirely plausible that Medvedev and Putin may have decided that ongoing support for Serbia made no sense if the authorities in Belgrade insisted on becoming American clients. Why should Russia care about Kosovo, if Serbia does not?

Failure to Communicate

Furthermore, the pragmatic Russians must have realized that their arguments concerning Kosovo weren’t going to change the situation there, mostly because the Empire showed no intention of listening. It "created reality" by force, claimed everything was legal because it said so, and simply brushed Russian objections aside – for what could they do, invade? Moscow’s response was to engage in its own reality-shaping by force, in a region where Russia had the guns and NATO was the one with nothing but words.

If Medvedev and Putin thought this would teach the Empire a lesson, however, they were mistaken; firmly in the grip of solipsistic pseudo-logic, Washington is utterly incapable of seeing itself through the eyes of others. Even the misguided comparison of Ossetia with Kosovo fell on deaf ears, because indignant voices quickly cried out that Kosovo (being an American intervention) was right, while Ossetia (being Russian) was wrong!

Bizarro World

It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to communicate with someone so obsessed with managing the perceptions of reality that they’ve become incapable of recognizing reality altogether. In the Bizarro World of the Atlantic Empire, the bombing of Serbia was humanitarian, the invasion of Iraq was defensive, the occupation of Afghanistan was democratic, and the separation of Kosovo was legal – while the Russian intervention to neutralize the Georgian army and save the Ossetians from ethnic cleansing was "aggression" befitting Hitler or Stalin.

Medvedev and Putin are not angels – but they never claimed to be. That claim is the sole purview of American Emperors, a sign of madness that Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden and McCain/Whoever all have in common. To them, it doesn’t actually matter what Russia does – whatever anyone but America (and its "allies") does is by definition evil.

One wonders if they quite understand this in Moscow. And what will happen once they do.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.