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NATO goads Russian bear
Mon, 14 Jun 1999
There was, in late April and early May, an urgent feeling inside of NATO that some sort of compromise was needed. The feeling was an outgrowth of the fact that the air war alone would not achieve the desired political goals, and that a ground war was not an option. At about the same time, it became clear that only the Russians had enough influence in Belgrade to bring them to a satisfactory compromise. The Russians, however, were extremely reluctant to begin mediation. The Russians made it clear that they would only engage in a mediation effort if there were a prior negotiation between NATO and Russia in which the basic outlines of a settlement were established. The resulting agreement was the G-8 accords.
The two most important elements of the G-8 agreement were unwritten, but they were at the heart of the agreement. The first was that Russia was to be treated as a great power by NATO, and not as its messenger boy. The second was that any settlement that was reached had to be viewed as a compromise and not as a NATO victory. This was not only for Milosevic's sake, but it was also for Yeltsin's. Following his humiliation in Iraq, Yeltsin could not afford to be seen as simply giving in to NATO. If that were to happen, powerful anti-Western, anti-reform and anti-Yeltsin forces would be triggered. Yeltsin tried very hard to convey to NATO that far more than Kosovo was at stake. NATO didn't seem to listen.
Thus, the entire point of the G-8 agreements was that there would be a compromise in which NATO achieved what it wanted while Yugoslavia retained what it wanted. A foreign presence would enter Kosovo, including NATO troops. Russian troops would also be present. These Russian troops would be used to guarantee the behavior of NATO troops in relation to Serbs, in regard to disarming the KLA, and in guaranteeing Serbia's long-term rights in Kosovo. The presence of Russian troops in Kosovo either under a joint UN command or as an independent force was the essential element of the G-8. Many long hours were spent in Bonn and elsewhere negotiating this agreement.
Over the course of a month, the Russians pressured Milosevic to accept these agreements. Finally, in a meeting attended by the EU's Martti Ahtisaari and Moscow's Viktor Chernomyrdin, Milosevic accepted the compromise. Milosevic did not accept the agreements because of the bombing campaign. It hurt, but never crippled him. Milosevic accepted the agreements because the Russians wanted them and because they guaranteed that they would be present as independent observers to make certain that NATO did not overstep its bounds. This is the key: it was the Russians, not the bombing campaign that delivered the Serbs.
NATO violated that understanding from the instant the announcement came from Belgrade. NATO deliberately and very publicly attacked the foundations of the accords by trumpeting them as a unilateral victory for NATO's air campaign and the de-facto surrender of Serbia. Serbia, which had thought it had agreed to a compromise under Russian guarantees, found that NATO and the Western media were treating this announcement as a surrender. Serb generals were absolutely shocked when, in meeting with their NATO counterparts, they were given non-negotiable demands by NATO. They not only refused to sign, but they apparently contacted their Russian military counterparts directly, reporting NATO's position. A Russian general arrived at the negotiations and apparently presided over their collapse.
Throughout last week, NATO was in the bizarre position of claiming victory over the Serbs while trying to convince them to let NATO move into Kosovo. The irony of the situation of course escaped NATO. Serbia had agreed to the G-8 agreements and it was sticking by them. NATO's demand that Serbia accept non-negotiable terms was simply rejected, precisely because Serbia had not been defeated. The key issue was the Russian role. Everything else was trivial. Serbia had been promised an independent Russian presence. The G-8 agreements had said that any unified command would be answerable to the Security Council. That wasn't happening. The Serbs weren't signing. NATO's attempt to dictate terms by right of victory fell flat on its face. For a week, NATO troops milled around, waiting for Serb permission to move in.
The Russians proposed a second compromise. If everyone would not be under UN command, they would accept responsibility for their own zone. NATO rejected this stating Russia could come into Kosovo under NATO command or not at all. This not only violated the principles that had governed the G-8 negotiations, by removing the protection of Serb interests against NATO, but it also put the Russians into an impossible position in Belgrade and in Moscow. The negotiators appeared to be either fools or dupes of the West. Chernomyrdin and Ivanov worked hard to save the agreements, and perhaps even their own careers. NATO, for reasons that escape us, gave no ground. They hung the negotiators out to dry by giving them no room for maneuver. Under NATO terms, Kosovo would become exactly what Serbia had rejected at Rambouillet: a NATO protectorate. And now it was Russia, Serbia's ally, that delivered them to NATO.
By the end of the week, something snapped in Moscow. It is not clear whether it was Yeltsin who himself ordered that Russian troops move into Pristina or whether the Russian General Staff itself gave the order. What is clear is that Yeltsin promoted the Russian general who, along with his troops, rolled into Pristina. It is also clear that although Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had claimed that the whole affair was an accident and promised that the troops would be withdrawn immediately, no troops have been removed. Talbott then flew back to Moscow. Clinton got to speak with Yeltsin after a 24-hour delay, but the conversation went nowhere. Meanwhile, Albright is declaring that the Russians must come under NATO command and that's final.
The situation has become more complex. NATO has prevailed on Hungary and Ukraine to forbid Russian aircraft from crossing their airspace with troops bound for Kosovo. Now Hungary is part of NATO. Ukraine is not. NATO is now driving home the fact that Russia is surrounded, isolated and helpless. It is also putting Ukraine into the position of directly thwarting fundamental Russian strategic needs. Since NATO is in no position to defend Ukraine and since there is substantial, if not overwhelming, pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, NATO is driving an important point home to the Russians: the current geopolitical reality is unacceptable from the Russian point of view. By Sunday, Russian pressure had caused Ukraine to change its policy. But the lesson was not lost on Russia's military.
Here is the problem as Stratfor sees it. NATO and the United States have been dealing with men like Viktor Chernomyrdin. These men have had their primary focus, for the past decade, on trying to create a capitalist Russia. They have not only failed, but their failure is now manifest throughout Russia. Their credibility there is nil. In negotiating with the West, they operate from two imperatives. First, they are seeking whatever economic concessions they can secure in the hope of sparking an economic miracle. Second, like Gorbachev before them, they have more credibility with the people with whom they are negotiating than the people they are negotiating for. That tends to make them malleable.
NATO has been confusing the malleability of a declining cadre of Russian leaders with the genuine condition inside of Russia. Clearly, Albright, Berger, Talbott, and Clinton decided that they could roll Ivanov and Chernomyrdrin into whatever agreement they wanted. In that they were right. Where they were terribly wrong was about the men they were not negotiating with, but whose power and credibility was growing daily. These faceless hard-liners in the military finally snapped at the humiliation NATO inflicted on their public leaders. Yeltsin, ever shrewd, ever a survivor, tacked with the wind.
Russia, for the first time since the Cold War, has accepted a low-level military confrontation with NATO. NATO's attempts to minimize it notwithstanding, this is a defining moment in post-Cold War history. NATO attempted to dictate terms to Russia and Russia made a military response. NATO then used its diplomatic leverage to isolate Kosovo from follow-on forces. It has forced Russia to face the fact that in the event of a crisis, Ukraine will be neither neutral nor pro-Russian. It will be pro-NATO. That means that, paperwork aside, NATO has already expanded into Ukraine. To the Russians who triggered this crisis in Pristina, that is an unacceptable circumstance. They will take steps to rectify that problem. NATO does not have the military or diplomatic ability to protect Ukraine. Russia, however, has an interest in what happens within what is clearly its sphere of influence. We do not know what is happening politically in Moscow, but the straws in the wind point to a much more assertive Russian foreign policy.
There is an interesting fantasy current in the West, which is that Russia's economic problems prevent military actions. That is as silly an observation as believing that the U.S. will beat Vietnam because it is richer, or that Athenians will beat the poorer Spartans. Wealth does not directly correlate with military power, particularly when dealing with Russia, as both Napoleon and Hitler discovered. Moreover, all economic figures on Russia are meaningless. So much of the Russian economy is "off the books" that no one knows how it is doing. The trick is to get the informal economy back on the books. That, we should all remember, is something that the Russians are masters at. It should also be remembered that the fact that Russia's military is in a state of disrepair simply means that there is repair work to be done. Not only is that true, but the process of repairing the Russian economy is itself an economic tonic, solving short and long term problems. Military adventures are a psychological, economic and political boon for ailing economies.
Machiavelli teaches the importance of never wounding your adversaries. It is much better to kill them. Wounding them and then ridiculing and tormenting them is the worst possible strategy. Russia is certainly wounded. It is far from dead. NATO's strategy in Kosovo has been to goad a wounded bear. That is not smart unless you are preparing to slay him. Since no one in NATO wants to go bear hunting, treating Russia with the breathtaking contempt that NATO has shown it in the past few weeks is not wise. It seems to us that Clinton and Blair are so intent on the very minor matter of Kosovo that they have actually been oblivious to the effect their behavior is having in Moscow.
They just can't get it into their heads that it's not about Kosovo. It is not about humanitarianism or making ourselves the kind of people we want to be. It's about the Russians, stupid! And about China and about the global balance of power.
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