No Cold War II

On 9 September 2014 the Dutch Safety Board issued its preliminary report on the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. The report was so preliminary, tentative and explicitly not meant ‘to apportion blame or liability in respect of any party’ that it only stated that ‘the initial results of the investigation pointed towards an external cause of the MH17 crash’ and that ‘more research will be necessary to determine more precisely what caused the crash.’

Meanwhile, the focus of attention in the Ukraine crisis has shifted to Russia’s policy of destabilisation or creation of ‘frozen conflicts’ in countries of its Near abroad to keep them from integrating with NATO and EU.{1} There may be no hint of Russian responsibility in the MH17 report, but in all the separatist violence on the ground Russia’s footprint is undeniable. This has at last also become the view of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently observed that it had become ever clearer that from the beginning this had not been about a conflict within Ukraine, but a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. She was aware that sanctions would hurt German companies, but it would be a much bigger risk to allow a country to shift borders in Europe and attack other countries with its troops without facing any consequences.

So we are likely to see more sanctions against Russia and more calls for Nato to rearm, all intended to discourage Moscow from further adventurism. But even without fresh evidence implicating Russia in the downing of MH17, this is apt to give rise to a demonisation of Russia, which is not in our interest because it will cloud our judgment. We will then fail to see that the real threat we are faced with is not Russia’s evil deeds or intentions, but the growing sense of mutual distrust between Russia and us.

Given its direct military intervention and blatant efforts to destabilise Ukraine, the fresh sanctions against Russia seem perfectly justified, but they would be more in our interest if each step on that senseless path were matched with a creative initiative in the domain of confidence-building measures. This would allow us to treat retributive measures against Russia as opportunities to try to convince it that we are conscious of its fear of encirclement by ‘the West’ and prepared to negotiate suitable solutions. What would be radical about this approach is its admission that Russia has a point. We can only do so if we stop dismissing the concept of ‘zones of influence’ as belonging to the nineteenth century. Russia’s geopolitical concerns are not fundamentally different from those of the Soviet Union, but the world has changed. Russia and the West should be able to talk about that. Once they do so, it will also become possible to enter into a coolheaded discussion about the effect of new developments such as ambiguous or asymmetric warfare, cyber attacks, and the use of unmarked soldiers, well equipped with modern body armour and weapons but no insignia, who in case of need can be identified as volunteers. And perhaps, in this context, an update of the definition of the expression ‘armed attack’ in article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. These are controversial issues but they can all be addressed in an atmosphere of trust.

Trust is not soft, it is the hard core of international relations. We saw it in action in the Kosovo crisis, when in mid 1998 the Kosovo Contact Group, an informal coalition of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (Russia with five NATO members!) was fruitlessly calling on the authorities in Belgrade{2} and the leadership of the Kosovar Albanian community to join in a peaceful dialogue. These calls remained unheeded, but the group also formulated demands that, by the nature of the conflict, were primarily addressed to Belgrade (such as the withdrawal of Yugoslav and Serbian forces from Kosovo). President Milosevic agreed to meet most of these but failed to implement them. It was no secret that the Russian diplomatic negotiators were at least as exasperated with Milosevic’s obstinacy as the other members of the group.

In September and October 1998, the Security Council adopted two peremptory resolutions (with language such as: ‘Gravely concerned at the recent intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army…’) There was, however, an important difference between the two votes:

  • On resolution 1199 of 23 September 1989 Russia voted in favour, but China abstained because it considered the issue an internal matter and felt that the FRY was acting within its rights.
  • On resolution 1203 of 25 October 1989 Russia joined China in abstaining because it thought that the resolution had not taken into account positive developments in Belgrade.

It was felt by some who witnessed the second vote that Russia had got cold feet, and either on this occasion or soon afterwards the Russians made it clear that they could not accept (meaning: would veto) a Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against the FRY.

As the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo raged unabated, planning was set in motion for NATO air strikes against the FRY without Security Council authorisation. These were launched on 24 March 1999; Russia tabled a draft resolution condemning NATO’s armed intervention as a flagrant violation of the UN Charter; the resolution was not adopted because it was supported only by China and Namibia with the other 12 members voting against. The five delegations of NATO countries on the Security Council (US, UK, France, Canada and the Netherlands) kept assuring the other members – especially Russia – that the only aim of NATO’s intervention was to put an end to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and not the dismemberment of the FRY. I can only speak for myself, but I had the impression that the Russian delegation trusted us. At any rate, the intervention, which NATO secretary-general Solana had expected to be a matter of three or four days of bombing, dragged on until 10 June 1999.

On that day, the Security Council adopted resolution 1244, which ended the war but lacked clarity with regard to the future status of Kosovo. Russia attached great importance to the consistent designation of the area as ‘Kosovo, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ as well as paragraphs that seemed to stress that point, such as:

‘Reaffirming the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other States of the region, as set out in the Helsinki Final Act and annex 2’, and ‘Reaffirming the call in previous resolutions for substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration for Kosovo’; but these were preambular paragraphs, generally considered less binding than the numbered operative paragraphs. In order to deal with that problem, the resolution summed up the demand in the following operative paragraph: ‘18. Demands that all States in the region cooperate fully in the implementation of all aspects of this resolution.’

Some commentators seemed to brush this off as language to save face for Serbia, but Russian diplomats in New York made it very clear that to them resolution 1244 meant that independence was out of the question, and they were visibly pleased with the outcome. China, however, remained critical of the intervention (NATO had accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade!), but given the FRY’s acceptance of the peace proposal, it had decided not to cast a veto. The resolution was adopted with 14 votes in favour and China abstaining.

In conformity with the resolution, the Secretary-General established an international civil presence in Kosovo – the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Kosovo had become an international protectorate under United Nations administration. As for the final status, however, resolution 1244 was ambiguous, and the international community had long been reluctant to tackle that issue. It was only in February 2006 that final status negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo got under way in Vienna, but they remained unsuccessful, and came to an end when Kosovo declared itself independent on 17 February 2008.{3}

The shock this must have caused in Moscow is one thing, the anger provoked by the speed with which Kosovo’s independence was subsequently recognised surely was another. Many Russians who had dealt with the Kosovo crisis in 1998 and 1999 must have felt let down or even betrayed, and Moscow embassies that had correctly gauged the degree of Russian indignation must have been aware that  there would be consequences.

It may seem hard to believe that the Ukraine crisis of 2014 was a consequence of the Kosovo crisis of 1999, but it is remarkable that the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is similar to that between Serbia and Kosovo: Ukraine was the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox, and Kosovo that of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Orthodox Churches matter to this Russian president. Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, Putin has repeatedly invoked the NATO intervention, and the resulting establishment of an independent Kosovo, as both a legal precedent for Russia’s actions and as a demonstration of the alliance’s aggressive intent.


1. Nato secretary-general Rasmussen said: “Putin wants protracted, frozen conflicts in the neighbourhood.” The idea is that a bloody, territorial conflict with no obvious solution is put on hold, with Russia stepping in to keep the peace on its own terms.

2. then capital of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or ‘FRY,’ successor state of the former Serbia and Montenegro and commonly referred to as ‘Serbia.’

3. Kosovo is now recognised by 108 of the 193 UN member states, 23 of the 28 EU countries and 3 of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council. The situation in which it finds itself could be described as a bloodless frozen conflict.