By Edward P. Joseph

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Published: June 28, 2007


Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin of Russia are headed for a collision at their summit meeting that begins Sunday in Kennebunkport, Maine. The issue isn’t Iran, Iraq or a new missile defense system. Rather, it’s the long-festering territory of Kosovo.

Putin wants to use Kosovo as a clear demonstration of Russia’s recovered prowess. Emboldened by perennial European divisions and Washington’s quagmire in Iraq, Putin sees a perfect opportunity to play the spoiler role. By intimidating the West into delaying a decision on Kosovo, Putin will be emboldened to obstruct on a host of issues.

The strategic battle lays out like this. Bush is backing a finely crafted UN proposal to give the Albanian-dominated province independence, with wide autonomy for its minority Serbs. Putin strenuously opposes it and threatens a veto in the Security Council, saying it is unfair to impose a solution.

Now, jittery Europeans want to delay a decision on Kosovo. Putin already rebuffed a French proposal for a six-month delay, but this hasn’t deterred diplomats from again trying to mollify the Russians with another futile – and risky – delay package.

There is nothing new in Russia standing up for its Orthodox Serbian allies. What is new is Moscow’s fierce determination to use the Serbs in order to advance its own wider agenda.

Flush with petrodollars, mindful of approaching elections and irritated by what he sees as Kosovo-like examples on Russia’s near abroad (breakaway client statelets in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that the West refuses to recognize), Putin is not interested in cutting a deal.

Moscow and Belgrade are playing for time, hoping that the volatile situation on the ground will explode – especially if the Albanians unilaterally declare independence. This, they hope, will pave the way for the minority Serbs of Kosovo to secede, creating a partition that would have neighboring countries like Macedonia deeply worried for their own stability.

Delay would not bring any of the divided parties closer to compromise. The Albanians, who are the overwhelming majority in Kosovo, pine for independence and are fed up with their limbo status.

Kosovo’s Serbs are understandably wary. Yet their masters in Belgrade have refused to permit them to engage in real negotiations. No Serb leader in Belgrade can ever publicly countenance the loss of Kosovo (though, privately, many would be glad to see the United Nations finally impose a solution.)

The UN envoy, former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, has managed a compromise that goes far to address Serb sensitivities. But his plan sits blocked by the Russians at the Security Council.

Bush must make it clear to Putin that there will be no further delay on Kosovo and that the responsibility for any ensuing chaos there – and any damage to the United Nation’s reputation – will be Russia’s. Convincing Putin of this will take more than talk. Bush must spell out not only Washington’s determination to move forward, but that it is also prepared for the consequences of a Russian veto in the Security Council.

First, Washington must ensure that when the Kosovar Albanians declare independence, they formally incorporate all aspects of the UN proposal for supervised independence. The proposal contains broad protections for the minority Serbs and a continuing, supervisory role for the international community that were bitter pills for the Albanian leadership to swallow. Washington can, with reasonable effort, ensure that there is no ambiguity about continuing Albanian submission to the authority of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union – even if the Serbs attempt to secede from independent Kosovo.

Second, working with its allies in the North Atlantic Council (particularly with Paris, whose proposal for delay on Kosovo was recently snubbed by Putin), Washington needs to steer NATO to assume not only continuing security duties (particularly with respect to the Serbs), but also a new training mission for the emerging Kosovo’s security forces.

Though some NATO allies will balk at doing that without a UN resolution, the fact is that NATO can absorb this responsibility even without the UN’s blessing. It is crucial that Putin be made to realize that NATO’s profile will increase even more in Kosovo if he obstructs the UN plan.

Third, Washington must press its European allies to move forward with their own contingency plans for an independent Kosovo absent a UN resolution. Though congenitally weak, Europe will begin to rally once it sees that Washington is moving forward despite Russian objections. For the Europeans then, there will be no choice but to make the operation succeed.  Destabilization in Kosovo, particularly if it produces refugees, will be primarily a European – not American – problem. If Washington and Brussels are careful, they can also manage the internal fallout in Serbia from Kosovo’s independence.

Six years ago, when they first met, Bush famously got a sense of Putin’s soul. Now it’s time for Putin to get a sense of Bush’s resolve. Standing up to Putin on Kosovo may lead to short-term turbulence in the Balkans, but it is the only way of setting the region – and U.S.-Russian relations – on a long-term course toward stability.

Edward P. Joseph, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. spent more than a decade in the Balkans, serving in the U.S. Army, with the UN, and as Macedonia director for the International Crisis Group.