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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.

After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

8 Oct

(Prefatory Note: A shorter somewhat modified version of this post was published in Al Jazeera Turka, but only in Turkish translation. The thesis set forth is that the UN has disappointed the expectations of those who took seriously its original promise of war prevention, but that it has over its lifetime done many things that need doing in the world. It also provided a meeting place for all governments, and has developed the best networking sites for all those concerned with the state of the world and what can be done by way of improvement. The UN System faces an important test in the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of November. The event is billed as the make or break session for the governments of the world to agree finally to serve the human interest by establishing a strong enough framework of constraint governing the release of greenhouse gasses that will satisfy the scientific consensus that global warming will not eventuate in human disaster. If Paris is generally regarded as successful, the UN stock will rise steeply, but if it should fail, then its stature and role of the Organization could become even more marginalized. Either way, it is important to appreciate that the UN as of 2015 is a very different kind of political actor than when it was founded in 1945, disappointing to those who hoped for permanent peace and some justice, while pleasing to those who sought from the outset a wider global agenda for the Organization and felt that its best contributions would likely be in a wide range of practical concerns where the interests of major political actors more or less overlap.]



After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

When the UN was established in the aftermath of the Second World War hopes were high that this new world organization would be a major force in world politics, and fulfill its Preamble pledge to prevent future wars. Seventy years later the UN disappoints many, and bores even more, appearing to be nothing more that a gathering place for the politically powerful. I think such a negative image has taken hold because the UN these days seems more than ever like a spectator than a political actor in the several crises that dominate the current agenda of global politics. This impression of paralysis and impotence has risen to new heights in recent years.


When we consider the waves of migrants fleeing war torn countries in the Middle East and Africa or four years of devastating civil war in Syria or 68 years of failure to find a solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict or the inability to shape a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and on and on, it becomes clear that the UN is not living up to the expectations created by its own Charter and the fervent hopes of people around the world yearning for peace and justice.


The UN itself seems unreformable, unable to adapt its structures and operations to changes in the global setting. The Security Council’s five permanent members are still the five winners in World War II, taking no account of the rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria or even the European Union. Despite globalization and the transnational rise of civil society, states and only states are eligible for UN membership and meaningful participation in the multifold operations of the Organization.


How can we explain this disappointment? We must at the outset acknowledge that the high hopes attached to the UN early on were never realistic. After all, the Charter itself acknowledged the geopolitical major premise, which is the radical inequality of sovereign states when it comes to power and wealth. Five permanent seats in the Security Council were set aside for these actors that seemed dominant in 1945. More importantly, they were given an unrestricted right to veto any decision that went against their interests or values, or those of its allies and friends. In effect, the constitution of the Organization endowed the potentially most dangerous states in the world, at least as measured by war making capabilities, with the option of being exempt from UN authority and international law.


Such an architectural feature of the UN was not a quixotic oversight of the founders. It was a deliberate step taken to overcome what perceived to be a weakness of the League of Nations established after World War I, which did look upon the equality of sovereign states as the unchallengeable constitutional foundation of an organization dedicated to preserving international peace. The experience of the League was interpreted as discouraging the most powerful states from meaningful participation (and in the case of the United States, from any participation at all) precisely because their geopolitical role was not taken into account.


In practice over the life of the UN, the veto has had a crippling political effect as it has meant that the UN cannot make any strong response unless the permanent five (P5) agree, which as we have learned during the Cold War and even since, is not very often. There is little doubt that without the veto possessed by Russia the UN would have been far more assertive in relation to the Syrian catastrophe, and not found itself confined to offering its good offices to a regime in Damascus that never seemed sincere about ending the violence or finding a political solution except on its own harsh terms of all out defeat of its adversaries.


Of course, the General Assembly, which brings all 194 member states together, supposedly has the authority to make recommendations, and act when the Security Council is blocked. It has not worked out that way. After the General Assembly flexed its muscles in the early 1970s emboldened by the outcome of the main colonial wars geopolitics took over. The GA became a venue controlled by the non-aligned movement, and in 1974 when it found backing for the Declaration of a New International Economic Order the writing was on the wall. The larger capitalist states fought back, and were able to pull enough strings to ensure that almost all authority to take action became concentrated in the Security Council. The Soviet Union went along, worried about political majorities against its interests, and comfortable with the availability of the veto as needed. The General Assembly has been since mainly relegated to serving the world as a talk shop, and is hardly noticed when it comes to crisis management or lawmaking. Despite this development the GA is still relevant to the formation of world public opinion. Its Autumn session provides the leaders of the world with the most influential lectern at which to express their worldview and recommendations for the future. Even Pope Francis took advantage of such an influential platform on which to articulate his concerns, hopes, and prescriptions.


There is an additional fundamental explanation of why the UN cannot do more in response to the global crises that are bringing such widespread human suffering to many peoples in the world. The UN was constructed on the basis of mutual and legally unconditional respect for the territorial sovereignty of its members. The Charter itself in Article 2(7) prohibits the UN from intervening in matters that are essentially internal to a state, such as strife, insurgency, abridgement of human rights, and even civil war. Such an insulation of domestic strife runs counter to the practice of intervention by geopolitical actors, and in this respect gives the UN framework a legalistic character that is not descriptive of the manner in which world politics operates.  


True, when the political winds blow strongly in certain threatening directions as was the case in relation to Serbian behavior in Kosovo that seemed to be on the verge of repeating the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, NATO effectively intervened but without the blessings of the UN, and hence in violation of international law. Then again in Libya the Security Council actually gave its approval for a limited intervention in the form of a no-fly-zone to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe befalling the besieged inhabitants of Benghazi. In that setting, the SC relying on the new norm of ‘responsibility-to-protect’ or R2P to justify its use of force. When NATO immediately converted this limited UN mandate into a regime-changing intervention that led to the execution of Qaddafi and the replacement of the Libyan government it was clear that the R2P argument acted as little more than a pretext to pursue a more ambitious, yet legally dubious and politically unacceptable, Western agenda in the country. R2P diplomacy has been further discredited by the failure to offer UN protection in the extreme circumstances of Palestine, Syria, and now Yemen.


Not surprisingly, Russia and China that had been persuaded by Western powers in 2011 to go along with the establishment of a no-fly-zone to protect Benghazi felt deceived and manipulated. These governments lost their trust in the capacity of the Security Council to set limits that would be respected once a decision was reached. This is part of the story of why the UN has been gridlocked when it came to Syria, and why R2P has been kept on the diplomatic shelf. The Security Council to be able to overcome the veto depends upon trust among the P5 sufficient to achieve a consensus, which was badly betrayed by what NATO did in Libya. Human rights advocates have long put forward the idea that the P5 agree informally or by formal resolution to forego the use of the veto in devising responses to mass atrocities, but so far, there has been little resonance. Similarly, sensible proposals to establish an UN Peace Force that could respond quickly to natural and humanitarian catastrophes on the originating initiative of the UN Secretary General have also not found much political resonance over the years. It would seem that the P5 are unwilling to relax their grip on the geopolitical reins on UN authority established in the very different world situation that existed in 1945.


Kosovo showed that, at times, humanitarian pressures (when reinforcing dominant geopolitical interests) induce states to act outside the UN framework, while Libya illustrates the long term weakening of UN capacity and legitimacy by manipulating the debate to gain support of skeptical states for intervention in an immediate war/peace and human rights situation. The hypocrisy of the R2P diplomacy by the failure to make a protective response of any kind to the acute vulnerability of such abused minorities as the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province of China, the Rohingya in Rankhine State of Myanmar, and of course the Palestinians of Palestine. There are, of course, many other victimized groups whose rights are trampled upon by the state apparatus of control that for UN purposes is treated as their sole and unreviewable legal protector.


In the end, what this pattern adds up to is a clear demonstration of the persisting primacy of geopolitics within the UN. When the P5 agree, the UN can generally do whatever the consensus mandates, although it technically requires additional support from non-permanent members of the SC. If there is no agreement, then the UN is paralyzed when it comes to action, and geopolitical actors have a political option of acting unlawfully, that is, without obtaining prior authority from the Security Council and in contravention of international law. This happened in 2003 when the U.S. Government failed to gain support from the SC for its proposed military attack upon Iraq, and went ahead anyway, with disastrous results for itself, and even more so for the Iraqi people.


It is helpful to appreciate that disappointment with the role of the UN is usually less the fault of the Organization than of the behavior of the geopolitical heavyweights. If we want a stronger UN then it will be necessary to constrain geopolitics, and make all states, including the P5 subject to the restraints of international law and sensitive to moral imperatives.


Another kind of UN reform that should have been achieved decades ago is to make the P5 into the P8 or P9 by enlarging permanent membership to include a member from Asia (additional to China), Africa, and Latin America. This would give the Security Council and the UN more legitimacy in a post-colonial world where shifts in the global balance are still suppressed.


Along with the above explanation of public disappointment, there are also many reasons to be grateful for the existence of the UN and to be thankful that despite the many conflicts in the world during its lifetime every state in the world has wanted to become a member, and none have exhibited their displeasure with UN policies to leave the Organization. Given the intensity of conflict in the world, sustaining this universality is itself a remarkable achievement. It perhaps expresses the unanticipated significance of the UN as the most influential and versatile hub for global communications.


There are other major UN contributions to human wellbeing. The UN has been principally responsible for the rise of human rights and environmental protection, and has done much to improve global health, preserve cultural heritage, protect children, and inform us about the hazards of ignoring climate change.


We could live better with a stronger UN, but we would be far worse off if the UN didn’t exist or collapsed. The only constructive approach is to do our best in the years ahead to make the UN more effective, less victimized by geopolitical maneuvering, and more attuned to achieving humane global governance.