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The Kosovo Precedent in the Caucasus

Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman just got back from a trip to Georgia, and didn’t hesitate more than a few moments to drop the K-bomb in describing the crisis there:

Russia’s invasion of Georgia represents the most serious challenge to this political order since Slobodan Milosevic unleashed the demons of ethnic nationalism in the Balkans. What is happening in Georgia today, therefore, is not simply a territorial dispute. It is a struggle about whether a new dividing line is drawn across Europe: between nations that are free to determine their own destinies, and nations that are consigned to the Kremlin’s autocratic orbit.

We happen to think that things are infinitely more complex than Putin = Milosevic, and that all separatism issues can only be considered in their respective independent political contexts. Furthermore, one would be hard pressed to find a country more critical of the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence that the Georgian government itself, so I’m not quite sure what Graham and Lieberman are getting at. I think that this other article by J. Victor Marshall is much more convincing with regard to Moscow’s instrumentalization of the Kosovo precedent, as well as an illustration of Washington losing its moral high ground by “selectively turning principles into propagandist slogans for scoring points.

As Richard Weitz at the Hudson Institute noted at the time, Russia could seize upon Kosovo as a precedent for fomenting separatist movements in the former Soviet republics, including South Ossetia’s drive for independence from Georgia in the Caucasus.

Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, warned similarly, “if the Kosovo precedent is used, the Russians can also recognise ethnic Russian enclaves in places such as Georgia or Moldova. What’s good for Kosovo is good for other places as well.”Their unheeded warnings have just come to pass, at the expense of thousands of dead and wounded.Just as NATO justified its intervention in 1999 as a humanitarian defense of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians against Serbian atrocities, so Russia said it came to the defense of South Ossetia, which suffered terrible atrocities at Georgian hands in the early 1990s, after Georgian troops shelled its capital earlier this month.In addition to Kosovo, Russia can justify its intervention on behalf of South Ossetia by pointing to any number of other precedents set by the United States: the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemption, its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, its silence in the face of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and many more.What difference do all these precedents and broken principles make?By selectively turning principles into propagandist slogans for scoring points, the United States no longer occupies the political high ground. Washington’s lectures sound like hectoring, not sincere admonitions that could sway international public opinion and restrain Russian actions.In short, by squandering its moral authority, the United States has unilaterally disarmed itself of “soft power” that was once one of our greatest weapons. And Kosovo was one of the fields upon which the United States laid down its moral arms.