Posted on June 21, 1999 in Washington Watch

While NATO begins implementation of a shaky victory over Serbia, the 11 week long air war has unearthed major problems between the United States and its old Cold War twin nemeses–Russia and China.

The Balkan conflict is far from over. The agreement that ended hostilities is an ambiguous one. The Serbs hold on Kosova may have been weakened, but it is still unresolved–and deep enmity defines the Serbain-Kosovar relationship.

In Belgrade, the Serb government is unrepentant. They maintain that Kosova is sovereign Serbian land and insist that the agreement in no way contradicts their stand. The ethnic Albanians, on the other hand, already believe that they are on the path to independence. NATO will now be faced with the challenge of sorting out these conflicting aspirations.

Daily, thousands of ethnic Albanians are returning to Kosova, while Serbians are leaving in droves. The Serbian army is evacuating on a timetable set by the agreement, but some armed Serbian presence will no doubt remain. Similarly, while the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) is supposed to disarm, it is expected that they will retain light arms. It is interesting to note how methodically the KLA has been in its occupation of essential Serbian official institutions. The situation, in other words, remains potentially explosive and can give way to renewed hostilities–this time with NATO troops on the ground.

Probably the most vivid reminders of how deep the divide between the Serbian and ethnic Albanians were the contrasting scenes of Serbs one day cheering the entry of 200 Russian troops into Pristina and on the next day Albanians cheering the entry of U.S., British, French and other NATO forces.

The logistical nightmare of implementing this fragile and complicated peace operation is only one of NATO’s problems. The other is resolving this Russian presence in the heart of Kosova.

The U.S. press has been filled with articles and analyses attempting to understand how and why the Russian forces beat NATO into Kosova, after their Foreign Minister assured the United States that they would not enter. Two sets of questions define the problem: did Russian President Boris Yelstin give the order contradicting the position of his Foreign Minster and his negotiators? And if so why?; or was the decision taken by Russian Army generals without Yeltsin’s approval? And if so, who is making decisions in Russia?

What is clear at this point is that the Russian troops are not leaving and are insisting on a peacekeeping role in Kosova. A number of other points should also be understood as defining this situation. The Russians feel, with some justification, that they played a significant role in facilitating the agreement that ended the hostilities. They, therefore, feel that they have a role to play in peacekeeping. Secondly, as evidenced by the Serbian reception in Pristina, the Russians feel that they have a legitimate and fraternal role to play in Yugoslavia. Additionally, Russia, which has expressed reservation about the expansion of NATO, feels protective of its “sphere of influence” to its west and cannot accept a passive role in eastern and central Europe.

Most importantly, Russia, despite it weakened economy and chaotic political situation, still sees itself as a player on the world stage. Increasingly, important elements in Russian society (the military, former Communists and nationalist groups), have grown restive and bitter as the West, and in particular the United States, has sought to marginalize the Russian role in world affairs. They have grown bitter at the humiliation of, what they describe, as being used when needed and then pushed aside. For example, Russia helped the United States build an international consensus against the Iraqi aggression against and occupation of Kuwait. Since then, Russia’s concerns and initiations vis a vis Iraq have been ignored. Similarly, Russians joined the United States in cosponsoring the Madrid peace talks and the signing ceremonies that followed. But Russia has been sidelined in the actual peacekeeping efforts.

For U.S. policymakers, Russia remains a huge problem to solve. Russia is an enormous country with tremendous national resources and thousands of nuclear warheads. Russia’s transition to democracy has produced a chaotic situation. Cronyism, corruption, and outright criminal activity have distorted its transformation to a more open economy. And as the one-time hero of Russia’s democratic advance, Boris Yeltsin, has become more erratic and autocratic, analysts puzzle over the prospects for Russia’s future.

The West has poured billions of dollars into efforts to both transform the Russian economy and create stability. The results have been less than satisfactory. While U.S. efforts to cooperate in Russia in reducing the threat from nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction have been more successful, worries remain.

If pushed too far or if ignored and marginalized, Russia can still assert itself and demand to be reckoned with.

But, Russian sensitivities are not the only problems confronting U.S. policy makers in the wake of the Serbia conflict.

While U.S. cabinet officials are meeting with their Russian counterparts in an effort to resolve the rift created by Russia’s insistence on participation in the Kosovar peacekeeping force, other U.S. officials are in China attempting to mend yet another rift created by the air war against Serbia.

The May 7th NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade that killed three Chinese diplomats remains an open wound in China. It is intriguing that the United States is making such an extraordinary effort to appease Chinese anger, especially in the face of recent revelations of extensive Chinese spying against U.S. nuclear facilities.

It is clear that despite U.S. outrage over this two decade-long Chinese espionage program, that the U.S. is intent on repairing and maintaining what has been called the U.S.–Chinese “constructive, strategic partnership”.

The U.S.-China relationship is a hotly debated topic in the United States today. Significant segments of both the Republican and Democratic parties are furious not only at China’s theft of U.S. nuclear and other critical scientific secrets but they are also troubled by China’s human rights record and its’ use of prison labor to produce low-cost goods for export. China currently has in excess of a $50 million annual trade surplus with the United States. For these reasons, the Administration’s efforts to renew China’s “most favored nation” trading status with the United States will undoubtedly be hotly contested and will most probably become a campaign issue in the 2000 elections (the Republican presidential candidates are deeply divided on this issue).

At the same time, there are those who worry about the pace of China’s arms build-up and speculate about China’s long-term ambitions in Asia and elsewhere.

In the face of such concerns, those for whom the Cold War remains more than a memory question the wisdom of what they consider “appeasement” of an unrepentant, aggressive China.

The Clinton Administration, of course, has taken a different tack. It remains committed to burying the Cold War and to progressively transforming both Russia and China into more open, free market societies. The Administration believes that only through constructive engagement with these two powers will their evolution and future relationship with the West be assured.

Significant sections of both Russian and Chinese society also want to protect their relationship with the West, in general, to the United States, in particular. Aid, technology transfers, and access to markets are seen as critical to both nations’ efforts to advance.

But there are those in the United States as well as in Russia and China who are not prepared to turn the corner and forge a new path in the post-Cold War era.

Problems created by the war with Serbia may have presented ammunition for the hawks and may have tested the resolve of those connected to a peaceful partnership amongst Cold War’s old rivals. But the Clinton Administration, in any case, remains committed to its approach as a necessary strategy for the future. If anything, the lessons of the recent conflict may teach us to be somewhat mindful of sensitivities and more aware of the dangers that still lay below the surface of that path to the future.

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