Vladimir Putin has consistently used Kosovo’s Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence as legal justification for his military incursions into other former Soviet republics to support Russian-backed rebels, writes judge Dean B. Pineles.
As an American judge, I have extensive rule-of-law experience in Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Kosovo. Looking at what has happened in these four countries provides a compelling explanation for the horrific events that are unfolding today.
As the world recoiled in horror last month, Russia, without legitimate provocation, invaded Ukraine, a sovereign country. The crisis was a long time in the making, with important historical antecedents, such as Ukraine being a former Soviet republic, President Vladimir Putin’s long-held ambition to recreate an empire of Russian influence, and his insistence that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO or the EU.
But it is also important to understand that other historical events have played an important part in influencing Russia’s geopolitical strategy over the last two decades.
As is certainly well understood in Kosovo and the Balkans, in 1999 under the leadership of US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, NATO intervened with an intensive bombing campaign in the brutal internecine war between Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo, in which Serbia engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Albanian majority, creating a humanitarian crisis. After 78 days, NATO prevailed and the war ended in June 1999.
Russia strongly opposed NATO’s intervention and remains Serbia’s staunch ally to this day. NATO established a peacekeeping force, KFOR, which also continues to this day. These events planted the seeds for the ‘Kosovo precedent’, which would be utilised by Putin in dramatic fashion in the years to come.
In February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia with the support of the US, the EU and other countries. This watershed event infuriated Putin, and he vowed that it created a precedent that would circle back to harm the West. And it did so in short order.
Just several months later, in August 2008, Russia invaded the country of Georgia, a former Soviet republic which was leaning toward NATO and the EU, under the pretext that Russian speakers and passport-holders in the breakaway province of South Ossetia were being threatened by the Georgian military.
Russian tanks and military personnel quickly poured through the Roki Tunnel separating the two countries as if they had been waiting for this moment, and Russian forces quickly overwhelmed the Georgian military. (I was working in Georgia at the time and was evacuated to Armenia until hostilities ended.)
Russia then recognised the independence of South Ossetia and another rebellious province, Abkhazia, and continues to do so to this day. Thus the Kosovo precedent was fully implemented.
The ‘Kosovo precedent’ in Donbas
In 2010, the International Court of Justice, assessing a legal challenge brought by Serbia, ruled that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence did not violate international law. Russia would argue that this result should apply equally to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (I arrived in Kosovo shortly thereafter in early 2011 and remained for 28 months.)
Then in 2014, the restive province of Crimea declared its independence from Ukraine following an incursion by Russian soldiers and a referendum. The written declaration of independence actually cites the Kosovo precedent – unilateral declaration of independence – as one of the justifications for breaking away from Ukraine. Crimea was subsequently incorporated into the Russian Federation.
In early January 2022, peaceful protests began in Kazakhstan, also a former Soviet republic, over a rise in gas prices, but quickly descended into violence amid rising dissatisfaction with the autocratic government and economic inequality. The government cracked down brutally, but could not control the violence and called for assistance from Russia under their military alliance. Putin responded quickly and sent Russian soldiers to help quell the disturbance, resulting in over 200 deaths and thousands of arrests.
While this situation was not directly related to the Kosovo precedent, it clearly demonstrated that Putin was willing to use military force to prop up his fellow autocrats within the former Soviet Union and to crush any popular dissent, or democratic liberalisation as has occurred in Ukraine. (I travelled to Kazakhstan for a rule-of-law assignment in 2006, and from my hotel window in Almaty, I could see the huge government building across the boulevard that was destroyed in the recent turmoil.)
During the last eight years, Russian-sponsored separatists have fought the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region of Ukraine. One of Putin’s first acts after the recent invasion of Ukraine was to recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, two rebel territories in Donbas, utilising the Kosovo precedent as he did in Georgia and Crimea.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the events in Kosovo actually established a precedent under international law, which is denied by Western countries.
They argue that the intervention in Kosovo was a unique situation, a one-off, because it was initiated and justified as a humanitarian mission limited to stopping the bloodbath and ethnic cleansing. But the concept appears to remain alive, at least in the mind of Vladimir Putin.
If he is successful in Ukraine, will he then move on to Moldova, another former Soviet republic that shares a border with Romania, a member of both NATO and the EU, under some flimsy guise of provocation as in Georgia, Crimea and Donbas?
If there is any upside to the ongoing Ukrainian tragedy, it is that NATO and the EU may be more inclined to integrate Kosovo into these alliances as a further bulwark against Russian meddling in the Western Balkans.