As Russia wages an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, comparisons between Ukraine’s plight and NATO’s Balkan interventions of the 1990s have resurfaced. But whatever the Ukrainian crisis is, it is not Kosovo, writes Sidita Kushi.
Sidita Kushi, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at Bridgewater State University and a Non-Residential Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Those in the West who forge parallels between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and NATO’s intervention against Serbia aspire to critique US military interventionism abroad and Western imperialism.
Instead, they parrot Putin’s justifications for wars of empire-building. They contribute to revisionist history, dismiss the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and embolden international aggression and irredentist agendas – not just against Ukraine but other vulnerable European states.
Although Russia has used the Kosovo precedent to justify its interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and today, Russia’s current invasion and NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999 are polar opposites.
One may disapprove of US global militarism, but it is imperative to emphasize the difference between a limited, third-party intervention amid a state-sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing – as was the case in Kosovo – and a calculated, full-on territorial invasion of a sovereign state for geopolitical purposes – as in Ukraine.
Without such nuance in place, drawing parallels between Kosovo and Ukraine risks incentivizing separatist movements in the Balkans, especially within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and promoting irredentism in an emboldened Serbia (which has not uttered one word of condemnation against Russia). Further, they solidify Russia’s justifications for its international aggression, adding fuel to an already blazing fire in Europe.
Russia’s recent recognition of the separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, followed by a “peacekeeping mission,” and then outright, unilateral war against Kyiv may be an attempt to revive its eastern empire and revoke Ukraine’s sovereignty – as Putin put it in his recent speech, to show Ukraine what “true decommunization means”.
Maybe it’s all about unifying ethnic identities and building a pro-Russia regime in Eastern Ukraine; perhaps it’s a ploy to mute domestic opposition; or maybe it’s a disproportionate response against Western regime change attempts and NATO expansion. But it is nothing like the events and objectives that preceded NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, after 9 years of UN and EU-led supervision that activated via UN Security Council Resolution 1244 immediately after NATO’s limited air war against Serbia in 1999. Kosovo continues to make sacrifices for the mere chance of international recognition.
Kosovo’s path toward independence came after years of ethnic cleansing and mass human rights abuses at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.
While the Butcher of the Balkans died in prison before his crimes could be displayed in court, it is thoroughly documented that Serbian government’s forces killed more than 8,000 civilians and expelled around a million Albanians from Kosovo, now admitted by some Serbian officials. Despite this, the West was desperate to safeguard Balkan stability by refusing to take sides.
In other words, when NATO finally intervened in Kosovo in 1999, it did so in the aftermath of decades of state-sponsored discrimination and systematic violence and ongoing ethnic cleansing that could only be rectified by sovereign rule.
Vladimir Putin formally annexed the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, after his regime had already occupied the areas since 2014, and similarly to the Crimea annexation, he has long co-opted the Kosovo precedent as his normative justification.
He has expanded his war against Ukraine, claiming to defend against Kyiv’s “genocidal regime” and to “denazify” the country. In this ruthless venture driven by ego and hyper-nationalist aspirations, Putin once again cites the NATO bombing of Serbiia as precedent for his war of aggression against Ukraine, co-opting Western norms, legal standards, and humanitarian principles for his own geopolitical purposes, as he did with Crimea.
Putin, at the same time, refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence nor the human rights abuses that propelled NATO intervention, clearly showcasing the gaping holes and disingenuity within his justification.
NATO-led wars to promote regime change are a legitimate security concern for Russia, but NATO’s interventions in the Balkans demonstrated that regime change was not a top priority. In the case of NATO’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, regime change was a reluctant aftermath at best.
In fact, Western intervention came too late to stop the Srebrenica genocide at the hands of Bosnian Serbs. In Kosovo, intervention came after Milosevic’s Serbia had committed crimes against humanity targeted at ethnic Albanians and after years of Western passivity and years of diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.
On the other hand, Russia is justifying military invasion by revoking Ukraine’s sovereignty simply because of its USSR origins, while Serbia’s sovereignty was breached due to repeated, extreme human rights violations occurring for decades.
Although Russian sources have consistently referred to human rights abuses and even cried “genocide” in Ukraine long before Putin’s speech this year, no evidence has surfaced of such atrocities beyond Russia’s state platforms. Instead, human rights abuses are reported at the hands of pro-Russia separatist groups within Donbas, including systematic torture.
Moreover, Putin has failed to allow time and effort for diplomatic solutions, instead preferring a swift, premeditated invasion, despite the Ukrainian leaderships’ attempts to broker a diplomatic peace, even going as far as to offer non-alignment status.
The Kosovo-Ukraine Parallels are making it worse
As Putin wages a war of choice and geopolitical revisionism in Ukraine, those who continue to equate his actions to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo are only fanning the flames of greater conflict.
They are accepting Putin’s justifications for aggression and opening the door to further irredentism in the Balkans.
For instance, thanks to the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who has increasingly met with Russian counterparts over the last months, the Bosnian Serb factions are primed to break away from Bosnia and unite with Serbia, while Serbia continues to hold irredentist aspirations toward Kosovo and other former Yugoslav republics.
Now more than ever, as war rages on in Europe, we cannot gloss over the past, such as the Srebrenica genocide and the crimes against humanity committed by the Serbian state as well as Bosnian Serbs, simply to make an obvious, cheap point about the inconsistent application and co-opting of international law by powerful international actors – whether by the US or Russia.
These lazy comparisons come at a steep cost. They embolden aggressors and legitimize wars of empire-building.
The rapidly growing comparisons of the conflicts in Yugoslavia to those in modern-day Ukraine are not anti-imperialist. They are the fuel, the equalization of blame, that imperialist ambitions crave.