Innovating on the diplomatic device known as constructive ambiguity, Russian President Vladimir Putin is resorting to what may be termed destructive ambiguity on Kosovo and the post-Soviet conflicts. Without coming down either for the principle of territorial integrity or that of self-determination, Putin leaves his options open while seeking to position Russia for a pivotal dual role: arbiter on the post-Soviet conflicts and spoiler in Kosovo.
On January 30, Putin instructed Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov on live television concerning Russia’s position in the international negotiations on Kosovo’s final status. Putin addressed the issue again in his annual news conference on January 31, the eve of the scheduled start of those negotiations. On one hand, Putin endorsed Serbia’s territorial integrity and urged a “solution mutually acceptable to Kosovo leaders and Belgrade.” On the other hand, Putin clearly implied that Russia would officially recognize the secessionist territories in the post-Soviet conflicts if the United States and other Western governments recognize Kosovo’s secession from Serbia.
The crux of Putin and Lavrov’s argument is that all these conflicts belong in a single category and require a single-model solution. Ostensibly, the Kremlin seeks a generally accepted and consistently applied standard: “Any proposed solutions should be universal in nature,” Putin declared. “If someone takes the view that Kosovo should be granted state independence, then why should we withhold the same from Abkhazia or South Ossetia?” Furthermore, “to act fairly, we need commonly recognized, universal principles for resolving these problems” (Itar-Tass, RTR Russia Television, January 30, 31).
The United States and European Union maintain that eventual independence for Kosovo cannot set a precedent, inasmuch as this conflict has its own characteristics that make it different from other conflicts. Putin and Lavrov rejected that view, clearly implying that Moscow would avail itself of a Kosovo “precedent.” According to Putin, “This is very important for the post-Soviet space. We will not follow a road that would see one set of principles applied in one case and another set of principles in another case.”
Confirming Russia’s official position that “Kosovo is an inalienable part of the Serb Federation [sic],” Putin strikingly insists, “This issue has immense importance to us.” Through such emphasis, he serves notice to Washington and Brussels that Moscow is prepared for a grand bargain: If Serbia’s interests are taken into account, Russia would refrain from officially recognizing the post-Soviet secessionist territories. Moscow will, however, recognize these, if Kosovo is granted independence.
Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov has also outlined the bargaining position: “On one hand, we are against Kosovo independence, as Serbia is our ally. On the other hand, we are ready to recognize Kosovo independence, should it come about, as an international precedent applicable to the unrecognized states in the post-Soviet space” (Regnum, January 31). Thus, Moscow would (perhaps with a show of anger, perhaps quietly) go along with a full or quasi-recognition of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, on the understanding that it would recognize an equivalent status for the post-Soviet secessionist enclaves.
In practice, Moscow would gain little by formalizing those secessions. Its recognition of the would-be statelets would carry no consequences in international law; would cast Russia openly as an aggressor; would irrevocably end Russia’s hopes to regain a measure of political influence in Georgia, Azerbaijan, or Moldova; and would alarm and alienate other countries as well. Moscow is content with the de facto situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh, and Transnistria. It is interested in prolonging the uncertainty, not in providing any legal or pseudo-legal solutions either in those conflicts or in Kosovo. Moscow’s operational goal is to use the Kosovo negotiations as a tool for inhibiting U.S. and EU involvement in efforts to resolve post-Soviet conflicts, at a time when Washington and Brussels consider ways of increasing their involvement. Russia hopes to entice the United States and the European Union into a quid pro quo whereby Moscow would not stand in the way of their solution for Kosovo, if Washington and Brussels tolerate the de facto existing situation in the post-Soviet conflicts.