Mobs, angry over Kosovar independence, burned the U.S. Embassy in the Serbian capital Belgrade last week, promoting a new outburst of anti-Western, anti-U.S. rhetoric in Moscow. The pace was set by President Vladimir Putin, who during an informal Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Moscow stated, “Kosova is a terrible precedent, and it breaks up the entire system of international relations that existed for decades and even centuries. In the end it is a stick with two ends and the second stick will someday whack them [Western states] on the head” (Interfax, February 22). Putin may have had a mix-up with the number of sticks that could one day whack the West, but his emotions were clear. Putin used the Russian word of Tartar origin – bashka – that is a contemptible diminutive of “head” in Russian street argot.
Putin’s lieutenants and the state-controlled press added abuse. Moscow’s new permanent representative to NATO, nationalist politician turned diplomat Dmitry Rogozin, told journalists that European politicians may have been bribed by ethnic Albanian drug dealers to recognize Kosovar independence (RIA-Novosti, February 22). Yet the most outrageous comment came from Rossiya TV. Konstantin Syomin, anchor of the “Vesti Plus” nightly news program, commented, “The people of Belgrade surely remember today other demonstrations when they went berserk to overthrow good old Slobodan Milosevic. How the nation, stupefied by liberal promises, lamented the dead Western puppet Zoran Djindjic – a man who destroyed the legendary Serbian army and intelligence services, who sold the heroes of Serbian resistance to The Hague in exchange for abstract economic aid and who got for all that a well-deserved bullet” (vesti.ru, February 22).
Yugoslav Prime Minister Djindjic was slain by a Serb nationalist gunman in Belgrade on March 12, 2003. Djindjic was a key leader of the popular revolution that toppled Yugoslav dictator Milosevic in October 2000. The culprits involved in the Djindjic assassination were convicted by a court in Belgrade last year. Rossiya is an official government TV channel, and its news content is strictly censured by the Kremlin. The Serbian Foreign Ministry has demanded an apology, calling Syomin’s comments “offensive” and “absolutely unacceptable” and “justifying the murder of a democratically elected prime minister.” Russian officials and the Rossiya channel have so far not responded (Moscow Times, February 26).
Putin’s designated successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who will be officially elected president next Sunday, traveled on Monday, February 25, to Belgrade to offer Serbia political and economic support. Members of Medvedev’s delegation are reported to have expressed satisfaction that the Russian Embassy building in Belgrade remains intact, compared with the burned out shell of the U.S. Embassy (Kommersant, February 26). In Belgrade Medvedev criticized Kosovar independence but used relatively mild language. Officially Medvedev’s one-day trip to Serbia and Hungary was in his capacity as chairman of the board of the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom to oversee deals connected to building the multibillion-dollar South Stream pipeline project, which is to be pumping Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea and through the Balkans by 2013. Planning to build a pipeline to supply Europe with more Russian gas is not an extreme way to protest Kosova’s independence.
It seems that Moscow’s recent wild rhetoric is mostly a propaganda smokescreen. The Russian Foreign Ministry has called U.S. policy on Kosova “cynical” and reacted similarly to comments on Russian policy by U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. But at the same time Russian officials have ruled out any retaliatory recognition of independence of Georgia’s breakaway breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Itar-Tass, Interfax February 24). During last week’s CIS summit in Moscow Putin had a cordial meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. According to reports, direct air flights between Georgia and Russia, cut by Moscow on October 3, 2006, may soon resume (Itar-Tass, February 22).
Russia clearly lacks the appetite or the military muscle to do much over Kosova. Last December Moscow sent an aircraft carrier naval task force from the North and Black Sea Fleets to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic (see EDM, January 17). The force was assembled with a clear intent to be somewhere near the Balkans in the event of Kosovar independence, which was expected to come in December or January. But independence was postponed to mid-February – after Russian ships had exhausted their capacity to stay at sea and returned to base. At present, the Russian Navy has nothing much left to send to the Balkans to show the colors. On the day Kosovar independence was declared, a Russian PM-138 naval support ship from the Black Sea Fleet with some 100 men on board was stranded in the Aegean Sea. The PM-138 had been based for some time at Tartus, the small Russian naval base in Syria, and was returning to Sevastopol in Crimea. In choppy seas, the ship’s engine malfunctioned, lost power, and began to list. The Russian Navy requested help from NATO members Greece and Turkey. The PM-138 was eventually salvaged and towed to a Greek port by the Greek Navy (RIA-Novosti, February 18).
This was hardly an impressive show of the flag near the Balkans at a critical time. The incident with the PM-138 demonstrates the morbid state of the Russian Navy. Russia’s genuine military weakness is perhaps a bigger threat than the much discussed resurgence of great power status under Putin. The Kremlin seems more interested in selling more gas and oil than fighting over Kosova or anything else. But old Russian missiles, bombers, submarines, and ships are plagued by malfunctions, a malady that may someday spread to include nuclear weapons.