US backing of Kosovo independence will further strain relations with Russia

 
  

American flags flutter almost everywhere in Kosovo, a symbol of how – through successive Democratic and Republican administrations – the US has long been a friend of this nation in the making.

 

But Washington’s stalwart support of statehood in recent months in the face of fierce resistance from Russia has raised the stakes in its increasingly testy relations with a Kremlin increasingly eager to shore up its influence among its former Soviet vassal states.

 

By backing Kosovo’s independence outside the UN Security Council, the US and its European allies have taken a calculated risk. They are betting that the turbulent Balkans will not plunge into violence and unrest.

 

If it does, the White House will take much of the blame. Reflecting the concern, President George W Bush said Sunday that the US will work to prevent violence.

 

“Moscow is convinced that it holds the moral high ground and will live to see yet another Western ‘blunder’ on par with Iraq,” said Oksana Antonenko, a Russia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

 

“If violence returns to Kosovo, Russia and the West will blame each other, worsening general relations,” Atonenko warned. The world is watching she said, to see if “Kosovo will be an exception – that independence will bring stability and rule of law, not chaos and insecurity.”

 

Russia is a traditional ally of Serbia, but that’s not the only reason why it vehemently opposes Kosovo’s independence. The Kremlin contends it will set a dangerous precedent for secessionist movements across the former Soviet Union, including Chechnya and Georgia.

 

The confrontation over Kosovo could harden Russia’s resolve on the other disputes that have brought ties to a post-Cold War low. While analysts say Russia is unlikely to restrict energy supplies to the West in response to recognition of the province, ignoring Russia’s concerns could make Moscow less cooperative on crucial issues such as Iran’s nuclear program.

 

Russia could also launch aggressive moves on ex-Soviet territory, such as recognizing the independence claims of breakaway regions in Georgia or even encouraging violent resistance to Nato membership in Ukraine.

 

The US is not deliberately trying to provoke Russia, but Washington sees no way around supporting Kosovo independence, said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

 

“There’s no question that Kosovo will serve as an irritant between Russia and the US, but there won’t be a sudden outburst of shock,” he said. “Both sides are trying to prevent an open rift.”

 

Washington also appears eager to support the independence of predominantly Muslim – but largely secular – Kosovo to help bridge the gulf with the Islamic world and to show how democracy can work in a Muslim country.

 

Russia and the US already are at odds over Washington’s plans to station a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The US says the interceptor rockets are designed to counter a threat from the Middle East, but the Kremlin contends the real purpose is to weaken Russia.

 

The US, meanwhile, is rankled at recent rhetoric from President Vladimir Putin suggesting that Russia could aim nuclear missiles at Ukraine if the former Soviet republic joins Nato.

 

“It’s a relationship that’s been going downhill pretty much since 2002,” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and a senior specialist on Russia for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 

And both sides, Pifer said, share the blame.

 

“Both sides are having a hard time seeing how they can engage in a constructive manner,” he said. “I don’t see anyone in Washington who wants to have a more difficult relationship with the Russians.”

 

Progress in that relationship, Pifer said, probably will have to wait until next month’s presidential elections in Russia and the US election in November.

 

Kupchan believes the US would have preferred to shepherd independence through the UN Security Council, but Moscow made that impossible by threatening to use its veto.

 

He and others say the next best thing will be a robust round of official recognitions from as many nations as possible, which will help vindicate the US and key allies in the eyes of a wary world. A flurry of recognitions was expected from Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium.

 

Independence doesn’t mean the US and Europe can disengage from Kosovo, where 16,000 Nato-led troops – including about 1,000 Americans – still keep the peace.

 

“The US wanted to wash its hands of its strategic commitments in the region, but the commitments will actually grow ... they’ll need to take on greater responsibility to make sure violence doesn’t break out,” Kupchan said.

 

“The immediate implication for the US is that it ain’t over yet in the Balkans.” (AP)

 
 
 
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