If one nation is totally infuriated by the current bombing of Serbia, it’s Russia. After numerous assaults by angry crowds, the imposing building of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Moscow now looks like an expensive piece of furniture despoiled by a wild party, its walls covered with ketchup and ink. It is unclear whether the assailants paid for the ketchup and ink bottles out of their own thin wallets, or whether these weapons were distributed by some generous political mogul. Both may be true: Rank-and-file Muscovites are very angry indeed at the U.S. government, and practically every politician in Russia is happy to capitalize on the crisis in the Balkans.
Why so much rage? In principle, it is bizarre for a nation suffering the most severe economic hardships and political turmoil to pay so much attention to developments abroad that should be of no immediate concern. Indeed, Serbia is separated from Russia by Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. Any political earthquake in the Balkans will be felt by these nations first; they are cushioning it for Moscow and as a result, Russia’s geostrategic situation looks infinitely better than that of Serbia’s neighbors.
The easiest (but not necessarily the truest) explanation for Russia’s stormy reaction to NATO’s bombing is the remnants of the country’s imperial shroud, the tidbits of its imperial self-image, the ghost of the superpower status that Russia has lost since the end of the Cold War. Serbia and the Balkans in general had been central to Russia’s foreign policy for exactly a century — between the Napoleonic wars and World War I — until the empire lost its sphere of influence in the area to Western powers in 1917.
However, by the end of World War II, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin jumped at the opportunity to re-establish Moscow’s presence there — only to lose it to Tito’s flamboyant nationalism three years later. After 1948, Moscow had no real weight in Yugoslavia and its interest in the area until very recently remained purely nostalgic.
The end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the emergence of boisterously nationalist Serbia definitely upgraded Moscow in the Balkans. Both Belgrade and the Kremlin started recycling the myth of ethnic (Slavic) and religious (Eastern Orthodox) unity between Russians and Serbs. But this connection is more psychological than political or geostrategic; no matter how close the two languages or the two churches may be, Russia does not have a real say in Yugoslav politics.
Russia’s strategic interests in Yugoslavia, though tangible, simply cannot be compared with those of Greece, Albania, Bulgaria or Italy — the neighbors of the awesome Yugoslav mess. In principle, a big Balkan war can bring the conflict to the Russian borders on the Black Sea — if Bulgaria or Turkey are somehow drawn into the conflict — but this perspective is very remote. Yet there is a possibility that one day Russian naval patrols will start receiving boats loaded with refugees from the Balkans — while there is absolutely no chance that the United States could face the same prospect — and this is exactly the reason why Moscow feels so infuriated.
The NATO bombing is led by a nation with no strong interests in the Balkans with the exception of the general intention of keeping NATO’s eastern borders secure. It is maddening for the Kremlin to realize that Serbia’s fate is being decided not in Berlin and Paris (forget about Moscow, anyway), but in Washington D.C. Indeed, if NATO’s involvement in the Yugoslav conflict turns out to be counterproductive (and in all likelihood it will), the U.S. will lose just another Vietnam, while Serbia’s European neighbors will forfeit their security. When the U.S. evacuated its embassy from Saigon in 1975, it got only the “Vietnam syndrome” — while Cambodia, for example, got the Vietnamese occupation. America is again playing war games in somebody else’s back yard.
Of course, virtually everybody in Russia believe that bombing of Serbia is nothing but a postscript to Monicagate: The U.S. president wants to wash away the bitter taste of the impeachment scandal with a victorious campaign overseas.
Also, Russians cannot help regarding the Serbian case as a likely scenario for their own future. Indeed, Chechnya could be called the Russian Kosovo — and would it be too far-fetched to suggest that one day NATO will bombard Russia if it mistreats any of its mutinous ethnic minorities? What are the limits of the U.S.’ willingness to interfere in the affairs of other countries? How far does the doctrine of self-determination of nations go? What are the criteria for determining the status of disputed territory? In other words, how does one become a bad guy to the U.S.?
Speaking of good guys (Albanians) and bad guys (Serbs): Having gone through the first 10 years of postimperial ethnic conflicts, Russians are quite aware that it is impossible to identify a righteous cause when one deals with a disputed territory of a former empire. The Albanians vs. Serbs equation is by no means sheep vs. wolves, and Albanians carry their own share of responsibility for the atrocities of war.
The consequences of NATO’s bombing of Serbia for Russo-Western relations look very sad. First, any extremist in Russian politics can claim that the West wishes the worst on the Slavs. Second, the painful issue of equality in international relations has been reintroduced to the Russian mind. Why is the U.S. struggling for the rights of Albanians in Yugoslavia and not Tibetans in China or Chechens in Russia? Because the human-rights situation in Russia and China is better than in Yugoslavia? Or because Russia and China have missiles and no bombing will go unpunished?
These new suspicions might result in a renewed confrontation between Moscow and the West. One cannot help questioning the wisdom of God’s plan for the Balkans, with one single nation (Serbs) being entrusted with the dubious privilege of triggering several major crises of the 20th century.
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