What Makes Ukraine Different than Serbia? Why Kosovo? Why not Dombas?

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The post below is adapted from responses to questions addressed me to Stasa Salacanin of New Arab on September 14, 2022. My responses here are somewhat modified and greatly expanded.] 

Defying Serbian Territorial Sovereignty in Kosovo, Upholding Ukrainian

Territorial Sovereignty in the Dombas Region

  1. Would you agree that the repeating incidents and crises speak to the great limitation of the EU and the West, which seem to have long lost their sense of direction for a solution, offering no incentives or tangible promises to any of the Western Balkan states, especially when it comes to exact dates and full membership in the EU?

My sense is that EU has never made Western Balkan stability, security, rights of self-determination,  and EU membership for its component peoples a high priority. The Western Balkan states have been approached in a transactional mode by the EU rather than in the spirit of regional and civilizational community.

The Kosovo Exception was motivated by other political considerations than the wellbeing and wishes of the Albanian majority Kosovars, the rationale for humanitarian intervention in 1999 that masked the pursuit of strategic interests of the intervening coalition of states. These interests include establishing the viability of NATO after the end of the Cold Wars and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the lingering liberal sense of guilt associated with the failure to react effectively to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 combined with concerns that it could be repeated in Kosovo. Such a prospect was felt to be a betrayal of the European ‘never again’ pledge made subsequent to the Holocaust, as well as expressive of a general hostility to Serbia and its leader.

At the time Noam Chomsky usefully called attention to the double standards characteristic of such Western undertakings by labeling the Kosovo War as an instance of ‘military humanism.’ After this post-Cold War revitalization of NATO, the liberal elites of the West sought a terminology to legitimize non-defensive uses of force that would conform superficially to the ethos of a post-colonial world. This ethos was particularly sensitive to ‘interventions’ claims overriding ‘territorial sovereignty.’

After Kosovo was ‘liberated’ from its captive status in Serbia, an elite search was underway to reconcile such uses of force with behavior that was neither defensive nor authorized by the UN Security Council. The most satisfactory normative solution turned to involve scrapping the language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a less abrasive verbal alternative that would justify such action. The best formula was found in the 2001 report of the Canadian initiative, International Commission on State Sovereignty, which proposed the adoption of a norm mandating a ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P. In 2005 R2P was accepted as a framework for the exercise of international responsibility by the UN, and as necessary upholding humanitarian justifications for the use of force to protect basic rights. R2P was invoked by NATO members of the Security Council in 20ll in its call for the imposition of a No Fly Zone with the mission of protecting the civilian population of Benghazi from the alleged threat of approaching Libyan armed forces, Several countries (not only China and Russia, but India, Brazil, and Germany) were opposed to armed intervention, yet succumbed to the more modest sounding claim to establish a defensive No Fly Zone in relation to one city in Libya. resulting in a vote on SC Res. 1970, March 17, 2011. This resolution was supported by 10 states, opposed by none, with five abstentions. 

The implementation of the mission in 2011 was delegated to NATO, with the U.S. in Obama’s words, ‘leading from behind.’ The limits imposed by the SC in its authorization of the undertaking went unheeded. and the actual operation from its outset seemed clearly designed to achieve regime-change. At the very start of military operations the use of force, especially from the air, was greatly expanded beyond what the abstaining states thought they were authorizing by abstaining from the vote in the Security Council. In effect, R2P turned out to be a diplomatic device to give cover to military humanism, but this time clouded by an ambiguous stamp of approval by the UN. The result was to lower the level of trust among members of the Security Council, making further subsequent requests by Western members for UN authorizations of force more problematic as was illustrated by the standoffs during the Syrian Civil War of the prior decade.

The other facet of the Chomsky critique concerning double standards is also pertinent. In the Kosovo instance Chomsky illustrated his assessment by reference to the plight of the Kurdish minority, especially in Turkey. In relation to the Libyan intervention, there are many instances of geopolitical detachment, most notably the failure to authorize, or even propose, the implementation in relation to the Palestinian people, long denied their basic rights and periodically exposed to massive military operations by Israel, especially to the two million Palestinian civilians locked up in Gaza by an unrelenting military blockade that has existed since 2007.

It would be important to contextualize the Russian intervention in Ukraine in relation to the well-documented plight of the Russian-oriented minority in the Dombas region. Of course, this Ukraine Crisis is compounded by the complexity of the objectives sought by both sides. Russia seeking to establish its traditional spheres of influence lost at the time of the Soviet collapse and challenge what is perceived by Moscow (and elsewhere) as the American-led aftermath of the Cold War in the form of a Western-oriented hegemonic unipolarity. The United States, and a compliant Europe, regard the Russian aggression as a challenge to the global security arrangements it has presided over since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. wants to inflict defeat on Russia, claim some credit for defending Ukraine, signal China that challenging unipolarity is self-destructive.

  • Do you think that the so-called normalization process-advocated by the EU, and the US and which foresees the step-by-step establishment of a functional relationship between Belgrade and Pristina will eventually lead to mutual recognition of two states Kosovo and Serbia, will succeed in the current situation, (and given to similar challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also with conflict in Ukraine)?

Each conflict of this character, stressing the rights of aggrieved distinct peoples within the borders of an internationally recognized state, raises a general issue of the integrity and territorial rights of existing sovereign states versus the scope of rights of self-determination. The interpretation of policy options in each case is highly influenced by the overall strategic context and only secondarily by legal rights and moral principle. Overall, geopolitics plays a decisive role in high profile instances where strategic interests and ethnic identifications are at the core of the tensions. This is the only way to understand the contradictory Western presentations of Kosovo on the one side, and Donbas on the other side. In one instance, the claims of an existing state to the integrity of its borders is set aside due to the supposed primacy of humanitarian concerns, while in the other it is upheld, in both instances by NATO/US intervention in support of the national government and at the expense of the separatist claims and human rights of a captive minority. 

  • Is the situation in Kosovo comparable with the conflict in Ukraine (especially regarding Crimea and Donbas, where the West in one case supports the territorial integrity of the state and condemns the invasion of Ukrainea while in another case supports the secession/self-determination and while justifying the international (regional) intervention/aggresssion/occupation of Kosovo? Their arguments have not been convincing. Russia as well as China, Serbia have not missed a chance to remind the collective West about their double standards (and the fact that approximately half of UN members (as well as 5 EU members, still do not recognize Kosovo).

Comparability is a matter of interpreting the broader context of the conflict, and often is shaped by the eye of the beholder. There was a Euro-American readiness in the Kosovo case to take punitive action against Serbia given the background of its political and cultural affinities with Russia, while in the Ukraine the anti-Russian central government in Kyiv enjoys unconditional Western backing, including participation in the deliberately provocative conduct of the decade preceding the Russian attack . Double standards are pervasive and responsible for grave injustices to some captive peoples, and not only in Europe. The blind eye turned toward denials of the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people in what had been their own country of Palestine represents a flagrant example of international double standards. The Zionist Project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine was enacted over the course of more than a century. It resulted in the establishment of a settle colonial regime that maintains Jewish supremacy through the imposition of an apartheid regime of discriminatory and exploitative control. Palestine as a site of injustice is notable, although far from being the only such instance of prolonged denial of basic rights (Western Sahara, Kashmir). Palestine is, however, uniquely linked to the UN through its succession to the British Mandate. By the acceptance of responsibility by the UN in 1947 for finding a peaceful solution between contradictory claims of the Palestinian resident population and the Jewish post-Holocaust Zionist Movement this struggle more than any other since 1945 has dramatized the weakness of the UN in face of strong geopolitical resistance.

The situation in Ukraine resembles Kosovo in the sense that the UN cannot be mobilized by the West due to the right of veto enjoyed Russia and China. As a consequence, the UN Charter restrictions on the use of force are put aside to varying degrees by both Russian and the U.S. The struggle will be finally resolved by the costs and risks these two geopolitical actors are willing to incur over time. The people of Ukraine are being victimized by the apparent refusal of either side to end the killing and turn to diplomacy in the hope of finding a diplomatic compromise. Having drawn the geopolitical lines of battle so starkly, the devastating Ukraine War is likely to be prolonged at the expense of the Ukrainian people. The question of whether post-1989 unipolarity is confirmed or yields ground to the multipolar challengers is likely to determine the flow of history for at least the decade ahead. These high geopolitical stakes are bad news for the Ukrainian people, and seems not to be understood by their Kyiv leaders so that mitigating steps might be independently taken, and diplomacy initiated between Ukraine and Russia, hoping that Moscow might be willing to put aside its geopolitical ambitions and restore peace and security on its border.

One Response to “What Makes Ukraine Different than Serbia? Why Kosovo? Why not Dombas?”

  1. Beau Oolayforos September 22, 2022 at 4:26 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Senator Joe Biden was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Kosovo Liberation Army, and now he’s gone on to bigger things. He will oppose any hint of
    Russian influence, even in Belgrade. (Okay, maybe Dragutin WAS influenced by Moscow, but that was 1914.) I understand that there have been 14,000 or so killings in eastern Ukraine over the past 10 years at the hands of the Kiev regime. What if some US-neighbor-country liquidated that many Americans?

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