Global Intelligence Update
Weekly Analysis June 14, 1999
"It's the Russians, Stupid"
NATO continued its policy of trying to turn a compromise into a
victory. In order to do that, it has been necessary to treat
Russia as if its role was peripheral. It was a policy bound to
anger Russia. It was not a bad policy, if NATO were ready and able
to slay the bear. But goading a wounded bear when you are not in a
position to kill him is a dangerous game. On Saturday morning, the
bear struck back. NATO still hasn't gotten him back in his cage.
President Bill Clinton had a sign taped to his desk at the
beginning of his first term in office that read, "It's the Economy,
Stupid." He should have taped one on his desk at the beginning of
the Kosovo affair that said, "It's the Russians, Stupid." From the
beginning to the end of this crisis, it has been the Russians, not
the Serbs, who were the real issue facing NATO.
The Kosovo crisis began in December 1998 in Iraq. When the United
States decided to bomb Iraq for four days in December, in spite of
Russian opposition and without consulting them, the Russians became
furious. In their view, the United States completely ignored them
and had now reduced them to a third-world power - discounting
completely Russia's ability to respond. The senior military was
particularly disgruntled. It was this Russian mood, carefully read
by Slobodan Milosevic, which led him to conclude that it was the
appropriate time to challenge the West in Kosovo. It was clear to
Milosevic that the Russians would not permit themselves to be
humiliated a second time. He was right. When the war broke out,
the Russians were not only furious again, but provided open
political support to Serbia.
There was, in late April and early May, an urgent feeling inside of
NATO that some sort of compromise was needed. The feeling was an
outgrowth of the fact that the air war alone would not achieve the
desired political goals, and that a ground war was not an option.
At about the same time, it became clear that only the Russians had
enough influence in Belgrade to bring them to a satisfactory
compromise. The Russians, however, were extremely reluctant to
begin mediation. The Russians made it clear that they would only
engage in a mediation effort if there were a prior negotiation
between NATO and Russia in which the basic outlines of a settlement
were established. The resulting agreement was the G-8 accords.
The two most important elements of the G-8 agreement were
unwritten, but they were at the heart of the agreement. The first
was that Russia was to be treated as a great power by NATO, and not
as its messenger boy. The second was that any settlement that was
reached had to be viewed as a compromise and not as a NATO victory.
This was not only for Milosevic's sake, but it was also for
Yeltsin's. Following his humiliation in Iraq, Yeltsin could not
afford to be seen as simply giving in to NATO. If that were to
happen, powerful anti-Western, anti-reform and anti-Yeltsin forces
would be triggered. Yeltsin tried very hard to convey to NATO that
far more than Kosovo was at stake. NATO didn't seem to listen.
Thus, the entire point of the G-8 agreements was that there would
be a compromise in which NATO achieved what it wanted while
Yugoslavia retained what it wanted. A foreign presence would enter
Kosovo, including NATO troops. Russian troops would also be
present. These Russian troops would be used to guarantee the
behavior of NATO troops in relation to Serbs, in regard to
disarming the KLA, and in guaranteeing Serbia's long-term rights in
Kosovo. The presence of Russian troops in Kosovo either under a
joint UN command or as an independent force was the essential
element of the G-8. Many long hours were spent in Bonn and
elsewhere negotiating this agreement.
Over the course of a month, the Russians pressured Milosevic to
accept these agreements. Finally, in a meeting attended by the
EU's Martti Ahtisaari and Moscow's Viktor Chernomyrdin, Milosevic
accepted the compromise. Milosevic did not accept the agreements
because of the bombing campaign. It hurt, but never crippled him.
Milosevic accepted the agreements because the Russians wanted them
and because they guaranteed that they would be present as
independent observers to make certain that NATO did not overstep
its bounds. This is the key: it was the Russians, not the bombing
campaign that delivered the Serbs.
NATO violated that understanding from the instant the announcement
came from Belgrade. NATO deliberately and very publicly attacked
the foundations of the accords by trumpeting them as a unilateral
victory for NATO's air campaign and the de-facto surrender of
Serbia. Serbia, which had thought it had agreed to a compromise
under Russian guarantees, found that NATO and the Western media
were treating this announcement as a surrender. Serb generals were
absolutely shocked when, in meeting with their NATO counterparts,
they were given non-negotiable demands by NATO. They not only
refused to sign, but they apparently contacted their Russian
military counterparts directly, reporting NATO's position. A
Russian general arrived at the negotiations and apparently presided
over their collapse.
Throughout last week, NATO was in the bizarre position of claiming
victory over the Serbs while trying to convince them to let NATO
move into Kosovo. The irony of the situation of course escaped
NATO. Serbia had agreed to the G-8 agreements and it was sticking
by them. NATO's demand that Serbia accept non-negotiable terms was
simply rejected, precisely because Serbia had not been defeated.
The key issue was the Russian role. Everything else was trivial.
Serbia had been promised an independent Russian presence. The G-8
agreements had said that any unified command would be answerable to
the Security Council. That wasn't happening. The Serbs weren't
signing. NATO's attempt to dictate terms by right of victory fell
flat on its face. For a week, NATO troops milled around, waiting
for Serb permission to move in.
The Russians proposed a second compromise. If everyone would not
be under UN command, they would accept responsibility for their own
zone. NATO rejected this stating Russia could come into Kosovo
under NATO command or not at all. This not only violated the
principles that had governed the G-8 negotiations, by removing the
protection of Serb interests against NATO, but it also put the
Russians into an impossible position in Belgrade and in Moscow.
The negotiators appeared to be either fools or dupes of the West.
Chernomyrdin and Ivanov worked hard to save the agreements, and
perhaps even their own careers. NATO, for reasons that escape us,
gave no ground. They hung the negotiators out to dry by giving
them no room for maneuver. Under NATO terms, Kosovo would become
exactly what Serbia had rejected at Rambouillet: a NATO
protectorate. And now it was Russia, Serbia's ally, that delivered
them to NATO.
By the end of the week, something snapped in Moscow. It is not
clear whether it was Yeltsin who himself ordered that Russian
troops move into Pristina or whether the Russian General Staff
itself gave the order. What is clear is that Yeltsin promoted the
Russian general who, along with his troops, rolled into Pristina.
It is also clear that although Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had
claimed that the whole affair was an accident and promised that the
troops would be withdrawn immediately, no troops have been removed.
Talbott then flew back to Moscow. Clinton got to speak with
Yeltsin after a 24-hour delay, but the conversation went nowhere.
Meanwhile, Albright is declaring that the Russians must come under
NATO command and that's final.
The situation has become more complex. NATO has prevailed on
Hungary and Ukraine to forbid Russian aircraft from crossing their
airspace with troops bound for Kosovo. Now Hungary is part of
NATO. Ukraine is not. NATO is now driving home the fact that
Russia is surrounded, isolated and helpless. It is also putting
Ukraine into the position of directly thwarting fundamental Russian
strategic needs. Since NATO is in no position to defend Ukraine
and since there is substantial, if not overwhelming, pro-Russian
sentiment in Ukraine, NATO is driving an important point home to
the Russians: the current geopolitical reality is unacceptable from
the Russian point of view. By Sunday, Russian pressure had caused
Ukraine to change its policy. But the lesson was not lost on
Here is the problem as Stratfor sees it. NATO and the United
States have been dealing with men like Viktor Chernomyrdin. These
men have had their primary focus, for the past decade, on trying to
create a capitalist Russia. They have not only failed, but their
failure is now manifest throughout Russia. Their credibility there
is nil. In negotiating with the West, they operate from two
imperatives. First, they are seeking whatever economic concessions
they can secure in the hope of sparking an economic miracle.
Second, like Gorbachev before them, they have more credibility with
the people with whom they are negotiating than the people they are
negotiating for. That tends to make them malleable.
NATO has been confusing the malleability of a declining cadre of
Russian leaders with the genuine condition inside of Russia.
Clearly, Albright, Berger, Talbott, and Clinton decided that they
could roll Ivanov and Chernomyrdrin into whatever agreement they
wanted. In that they were right. Where they were terribly wrong
was about the men they were not negotiating with, but whose power
and credibility was growing daily. These faceless hard-liners in
the military finally snapped at the humiliation NATO inflicted on
their public leaders. Yeltsin, ever shrewd, ever a survivor,
tacked with the wind.
Russia, for the first time since the Cold War, has accepted a
low-level military confrontation with NATO. NATO's attempts to
minimize it notwithstanding, this is a defining moment in post-Cold
War history. NATO attempted to dictate terms to Russia and Russia
made a military response. NATO then used its diplomatic leverage
to isolate Kosovo from follow-on forces. It has forced Russia to
face the fact that in the event of a crisis, Ukraine will be
neither neutral nor pro-Russian. It will be pro-NATO. That means
that, paperwork aside, NATO has already expanded into Ukraine. To
the Russians who triggered this crisis in Pristina, that is an
unacceptable circumstance. They will take steps to rectify that
problem. NATO does not have the military or diplomatic ability to
protect Ukraine. Russia, however, has an interest in what happens
within what is clearly its sphere of influence. We do not know
what is happening politically in Moscow, but the straws in the wind
point to a much more assertive Russian foreign policy.
There is an interesting fantasy current in the West, which is that
Russia's economic problems prevent military actions. That is as
silly an observation as believing that the U.S. will beat Vietnam
because it is richer, or that Athenians will beat the poorer
Spartans. Wealth does not directly correlate with military power,
particularly when dealing with Russia, as both Napoleon and Hitler
discovered. Moreover, all economic figures on Russia are
meaningless. So much of the Russian economy is "off the books"
that no one knows how it is doing. The trick is to get the
informal economy back on the books. That, we should all remember,
is something that the Russians are masters at. It should also be
remembered that the fact that Russia's military is in a state of
disrepair simply means that there is repair work to be done. Not
only is that true, but the process of repairing the Russian economy
is itself an economic tonic, solving short and long term problems.
Military adventures are a psychological, economic and political
boon for ailing economies.
Machiavelli teaches the importance of never wounding your
adversaries. It is much better to kill them. Wounding them and
then ridiculing and tormenting them is the worst possible strategy.
Russia is certainly wounded. It is far from dead. NATO's strategy
in Kosovo has been to goad a wounded bear. That is not smart
unless you are preparing to slay him. Since no one in NATO wants
to go bear hunting, treating Russia with the breathtaking contempt
that NATO has shown it in the past few weeks is not wise. It seems
to us that Clinton and Blair are so intent on the very minor matter
of Kosovo that they have actually been oblivious to the effect
their behavior is having in Moscow.
They just can't get it into their heads that it's not about Kosovo.
It is not about humanitarianism or making ourselves the kind of
people we want to be. It's about the Russians, stupid! And about
China and about the global balance of power.