KOSOVO & RUSSIA: The Balkanizing Question of Political Secession &
the Arrogance of Ignorance

October 17, 1998

Comment: #201

Discussion Thread:  #s 170 and 171, re: a sensible grand strategy.


[1] Pavel Baev, "Russia and Kosovo," Email posted on Johnson's Russia List, October 15, 1998. (Attached)

[2] Vladimir Shlapentokh, "CENTER-PERIPHERY RELATIONS: A POWERFUL FACTOR IN SHAPING RUSSIA'S FUTURE," The Institute for East-West Studies (IEWS), Vol. 2, No. 27, 21 August 1997. Attached.

[3] Susan Eisenhower, "A Summit for Listening," Washington Post Op-Ed Tuesday, September 1, 1998; Page A19

Reference #1 is an email message that was just posted on Johnson's Russia List, a daily posting of opinion and news about Russian affairs. This particular message is part of an ongoing debate about Kosovo and Russia.

The author, Pavel Baev, raises a fascinating question about the relationship of NATO to an ethnic region's right to secede from the country it is recognized as being part of. I think he gives us a glimpse of insight into the grand-strategic complexities of Russia's center versus periphery question, which are not well appreciated by a Western political culture that naively assumes its values are universally accepted. Reference #s 2 & 3 provide additional background information and insight into the mind numbing nature of Russia's regional problems.

From the Russian point of view, Baev's argument suggests a NATO air strike in Kosovo might be seen as a first step in legitimizing NATO's role in determining whether or not an ethnic faction (or perhaps any faction) has the right to succeed or change its political relationship with its parent country.

Such an interpretation of our intentions might have enormous implications for Russia's restive ethnic regions, like Chechnya or Ossetia, or Dagestan, or Tatarstan, or whatever of the more than 100 regional units, about which we are for the most part ignorant.

Add to this the Russia's frustration at having lost its great power statues, her natural distrust of the true purposes of NATO's expansion, and the obvious possibilities for pathological political reactions to the her ongoing economic and social collapse, and Mr. Baev's argument provides food for thought which, unfortunately, is served up in a undecipherable menu written in grand-strategic hieroglyphics.

Understanding the grand-strategic effects of any prospective military action is very important to a nation's wellbeing. Comment #s 170 & 171 explained the requirements of a sensible grand strategy, as well as the unintended effects of a not-so-sensible grand strategy of the German Schlieffen Plan to invade France in WWI, as well as our growing predilection for drive by shootings with cruise missiles.

Does anyone have a Rosetta Stone to help us read the menu of unintended possibilities before we allow messianic Wilsonian platitudes amplified by CNN to carry us ever deeper into a pan-Slavic quagmire?

The quagmire in the Middle East may hold a grand-strategic lesson in this regard. We can truthfully say that the United States did not create the mess in the Middle East, which has its roots in the collapse of Ottoman Empire, Balfour Declaration, European Zionism and the Holocaust, the arbitrary boundaries of the Versailles Treaty, the pan-Arabist dreams unleashed by T.E. Lawrence, and the rapacious impulse of European colonialism, to mention but a few of the evolutionary pathways shaping this conflict. Yet after 40 years of involvement, the United States is now widely held to be the villain of a conflict that it chose to inherit for the noblest of reasons.

We did not create the unfolding Slavic quagmire either, but one wonders how the world will look at the world's only self-styled 'indispensable power' in another 40 years?

Chuck Spinney

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Reference #1

Date: Thu, 15 Oct 1998
From: Pavel Baev <>
Subject: Russia and Kosovo

The debate on Russia's policy vis-a-vis Kosovo might, perhaps, allow for a few more lines. In my opinion, it is more to it than 'ill-conceived' and 'plain stupid' pragmatism (Goldgeier & McFaul in JRL 2422) or 'reflexive anti-Westernism' (Chudowsky in JRL 2430). In fact Western and Russian perceptions of the crisis were strikingly opposite. Without going into much detail on the former, we can assume that it comprised two key elements: the need to address humanitarian disaster and the need to restore NATO's credibility.

The Russian perception, while seemingly quite unsophisticated, was actually more complex. Obviously, humanitarian considerations had few if any influence on it. The ambiguous ideas on the 'Slavic-Orthodox solidarity' might coloured the rhetoric somewhat but had little political weight. Much more important were the deep-rooted anti-NATO feelings which translated into political aims to prevent the Alliance from asserting itself as the central institution of European security. The ambitions to re-assert own 'Great Power' role - ambitions by no means diminished, but perhaps even increased by the crisis - further strengthened the intention to have a big say on the crisis. And finally, the growing fear of separatism and disintegration, for which Chechnya was a daily trigger, determined the firm political line against any precedent of legitimizing secession. The underlying perspective was that opting for a unilateral air-strike, NATO was establishing a pattern for possible forceful action against Russia.

It might have seen that the urgent need to secure financial and humanitarian aid from the West would overrule all these considerations, but actually much in the previous experience told Russian policy-makers that ambitious and non-cooperative stance was the best bargaining position. What was indeed unusual about the Kosovo case, was that Russia's position did make some sort of sense. NATO's planned action without any doubt had quite shaky legitimacy and uncertain support within the Alliance. Moscow was also able to advance a strong common-sense argument that humanitarian disasters could not be resolved by air-strikes. Richard Holbrook's last-minute shuttle diplomacy prevented (or, perhaps, postponed) the ultimate test of political wills, but Russia was able to escape from the corner even claiming success.

The outcome (uncertain and conditional as it is) leaves at least some space for cooperation between Russia and NATO in other areas. But even this impressive show of force did not brought Serbia to accept a political compromise, that would for instance grant Kosovo an equal status with Montenegro in the Yugoslav Federation in exchange for an internationally guaranteed commitment not to secede. The big political question of European secessions remains open - and Russia's negative answer to it has apparently stiffened.

Reference 2

Vol. 2, No. 27, 21 August 1997
The Institute for EastWest Studies (IEWS)

CENTER-PERIPHERY RELATIONS: A POWERFUL FACTOR IN SHAPING RUSSIA'S FUTURE by Vladimir Shlapentokh, Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University

In the next few decades, relations between the center and the regions will be among the most important political, economic, and social issues in Russia as well as in numerous other countries. The sheer number of actors involved in these relations (for example, there are over one hundred regional units participating) is daunting and they differ strongly from each other in dozens of crucial aspects. Among these actors are the regional elite, central dominant elite, opposition elite, the masses, intellectuals, neighboring foreign countries, international organizations, and international companies. Such diversity in the number of Russian actors illustrates just how complicated these relations are and how difficult it is to predict their outcome.

However, it is evident that Russia, as a centuries-old geopolitical power, will become very different over the next few decades. The "old" Russia, spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, could exist as a unitarian state only on the basis of authoritarian or totalitarian rule, combined with a strong patriotic and nationalistic ideology. In the new world, Russia, with its market economy and democratic institutions, is destined to change as a nation-state. Among the most important factors that will influence the creation of a new Russian nation-state are these:

  • The country's size and high transportation costs in a "common economic space." -- The gravitation of some of Russia's regions to stronger foreign countries for economic ties rather than to other Russian regions.

  • The strong, growing ethnic and cultural antagonism between Russian and non-Russian regions.

  • The strong separatist sentiments in several republics, such as Chechnya, Tatarstan, and a few others.

  • The extraordinarily large cultural, economic, and social differences among Russian regions.

  • The lack of a stable political system able to create a consensus on major values.

  • Moscow's loss of prestige as the unifying center of the country.

  • The lack of the threat of foreign invasion.

  • The lack of a strong national idea able to cement the Russian nation.

All these factors lead one to suppose that Russia will never again, at least in the foreseeable future, be as centralized as it has been for almost five centuries. However, these factors in no way suggest that Russia will completely disintegrate or even that its territories far removed from Moscow will secede, creating their own states.

There are a number of reasons why the disintegration of Russia as a nation-state is unlikely. Among them are (1) the hostility to Russian culture in the countries bordering Russia in the south and Far East, (2) the threat that foreign bodies in the Far East and south will expand their influence and perhaps even annex some Russian territories, (3) the common cultural and lingual heritage of Russians living in the most remote regions with the rest of the Russian population, and (4) the interest of most regions in the maintenance of a greater nation-state for political, economic, and social reasons.

The combination of centrifugal and centripetal forces will most likely push Russia to shed the unstable semi-unitarian and semi-federal state that was dominant between 1991 and 1995 and adopt some sort of confederation with high provincial autonomy. As has been historically true, in the future there will also be an oscillation in relative power between the center and the periphery, depending on various internal and external circumstances. Several other scenarios can also be envisaged. For a while, Russia might again become a strong, centralized state. However, it is also possible that it could become a very loose confederation that would still contain most of its regions, much as the Holy Roman Empire did.

Speculation about Russia's future has to be placed in the context of worldwide trends in the relationship between the center and the periphery. Some authors have predicted that the existing trend toward regionalization, coupled with the trend toward the independence of even small ethnic groups, will lead toward the disintegration of the world's leading countries. The United States, Canada, and Brazil in the Americas; China, India, Afghanistan, and the Philippines in Asia; Russia in both Europe and Asia; Spain, France, Belgium, Norway, and Sweden in Europe; and Australia will either lose large sections of their territories or will be replaced by a number of new, smaller states.

Other authors speak of the end of an era of universalism and the beginning of a period of fragmentation or Balkanization in the world. The demise of communism, one of the most universalist ideologies in the history of mankind, has significantly contributed to the global trend of fragmentation in the territory of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

This article draws on the book From Submission to Rebellion: The Provinces Versus the Center in Russia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press) by Vladimir Shlapentokh, Roman Levita, and Mikhail Loiberg.

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