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Charles Kupchan ("Independence for Kosovo," November/December 2005) is correct when he asserts that countries such as Russia have no real interest in Kosovo as a territory; Kosovo as a precedent, however, is another matter. Governments from Baku to Beijing and separatist regimes from Trans-Dniestria to the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus are taking a keen interest in how questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity are handled in the determination of Kosovo's final status. And there are very real concerns that the Kosovo question, if mishandled, will prove to be destabilizing not only for the region, but for the international system as a whole.
The United States insists that the Kosovo case is unique, but others are by no means obliged to see things Washington's way. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Kosovo precedent can be limited. The case for independence rests on two foundations: first, that the revocation of the province's ethnoterritorial autonomy in 1989 created a legitimate case for armed rebellion and ultimate separation, and second, that Kosovo's de facto independence for the past six years should be recognized de jure to end the province's nebulous status.
Could not Nagorno-Karabakh make the same case vis-a-vis Azerbaijan? Or Abkhazia in relation to Georgia? Will Kurdistan or southern Sudan cite a Kosovo precedent to support their bids for independence in a decade's time? And how long before members of the U.S. Congress begin to argue that Taiwan, another "breakaway" province that, like Kosovo, has enjoyed de facto independence, should be recognized as a sovereign state? China is well prepared to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council that would impose independence for Kosovo without the consent of Serbia for precisely these reasons. Meanwhile, Russia will wonder whether Washington's willingness to impose Kosovo's independence on a democratic government in Belgrade in the name of the principles Kupchan lays out will carry over to similar pressure being placed on two U.S. allies in the Caucasus -- one a fledgling democracy, the other an authoritarian regime -- to accept similar results for their breakaway regions.
Kupchan takes the government of Serbia to task for not preparing its population for inevitable realities. But we need to hold the mirror to ourselves as well. To end the Kosovo war in 1999 (and avoid deploying ground troops), the United States engaged in bad-faith diplomacy with not only the Serbs but also the Russians and the Chinese, claiming our goal for the province was "substantial autonomy" and maintaining the fiction that no borders could be changed without the consent of all parties. Moreover, the credibility of the United States as a neutral third party (whether over Kosovo or any of the other conflicts) has been severely damaged by a Congress whose approach has been driven largely by ethnic lobbying rather than a commitment to principles.
None of this is an argument for continuing to leave Kosovo's status in limbo, and a combination of independence and partition may in fact be the best possible settlement. But trying to impose an American diktat is bound to fail, especially if the United States is not prepared to expend political capital to move for settlements to the other half-dozen "frozen conflicts" of the greater Black Sea area. For Kupchan's strategy for Kosovo to pay off, the United States would have to undertake a far greater effort than it might think.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is Editor of The National Interest