Kosovo is a reminder that despite the end of history, most of the world still resents the westby Bruce Clark / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
The “westernisation” of Russia’s most talented and energetic young people is almost complete. They speak fluent English, take a discerning interest in American rock music, surf the internet and understand the financial markets. But for the first time since their parents’ country collapsed, many of Russia’s golden youth have something other than hedonism on their minds: it is cold, steely rage against the US and its allies, and determination that the western powers should be made to pay for their “aggression” against Yugoslavia.
If the bombing of the Chinese embassy was the most disastrous military mistake in the war against Serbia, then the worst political miscalculation was the failure to anticipate the intensity of Russia’s reaction. These two errors may yet prove to be horribly self-compounding. Until recently, the idea of a “Russian-Chinese front” against American domination of the world was little more than a twinkle in the eye of Slavophile ideologues. But the war against Serbia has had the effect of pushing the two giants even further into the same anti-Nato corner.
It now looks almost inevitable that Yeltsin’s successor will be far more ruthless in asserting Russia’s perceived interests, even if that means sacrificing economic advantage or human life. No one should draw false comfort from the notion that any Russian government will be constrained by its financial “dependence” on the west. There are more and more voices inside Russia calling for a unilateral rupture in relations with the international financial institutions, and a return to autarky. The fact that such a policy could have disastrous short-term consequences for Russian living standards is no guarantee that it will not be adopted. Nor should anyone in the west be reassured by the fact that Russia’s military budget is only a tiny fraction of Nato’s, and often seems insufficient to pay soldiers’ wages, let alone launch new wars. Once Russia’s military establishment is stirred out of corruption and lethargy by the emergence of a perceived adversary, there are many ways in which it could cause intense pain to the west without incurring any significant cost. Russia could, for example, supply Serbia, Iraq or other “pariah” states with more sophisticated air-defence systems. It could (and probably will) proclaim a new military doctrine based on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Or, perhaps the greatest nightmare of all, it could wink at the acquisition by terrorist groups of non-conventional weapons.
Of course, all these grisly scenarios would still have been perfectly conceivable even if Nato had not gone to war with Serbia. But from a Russian point of view, the conflict over Kosovo has been a vivid, and in some ways encouraging, illustration of the likely dynamics in any standoff between prosperous, liberal states and more traditional societies (like Serbia or Russia) where militarist and authoritarian values remain strong. As long as the main arena of competition is economic development or high technology, then the western contestants will come off best. But liberal democracies will always be at a disadvantage in a contest over which side is more willing to shed blood-of its own citizens or other countries’. This principle has been demonstrated several times over by Nato’s difficulties in the Balkans.
Some of the reasons why the western world “got Russia wrong” at this critical moment in European history are understandable enough. The Kremlin had huffed and puffed loudly over Nato’s enlargement-warning in particular of the negative reaction this would arouse in Russian public opinion-only to climb down and settle for a token right of consultation with the alliance. But this time things are utterly different, as Russia-watchers of all shades now agree. It is not because of any powerful attachment to Serbia; romantic, Slavophile nationalism has always been a minority taste in Russia. What alarms and angers people in Russia is the feeling that their country could be next in line to be attacked by a western alliance which has-as they see it-revealed its indifference to the principles of international law. These principles have come to be viewed in Russia-and many other countries, including China, India and even some Latin American states-as the last, shaky protection against a western world which is determined to impose its own values and economic system on the whole planet-the so-called fourth phase of imperialism.
Nor has the western world gained much credit among those who might be viewed as the natural friends of its war against Serbia, namely the Islamic world. On the one hand, it is true that failure to act in Kosovo to shield the (mainly Muslim) ethnic-Albanians from Serbian atrocities would have intensified the hostility of many parts of the Islamic world towards ” Christendom.” But the reverse does not necessarily apply. No amount of bombing of Belgrade will change the image of the west-as friend of Israel and imposer of cruel sanctions on the people of Iraq-which prevails in many parts of the middle east.
The moral and humanitarian rhetoric used by western governments to rally support for the war against Serbia has, if anything, exacerbated grievances. “If the plight of the ethnic Albanians is a casus belli for the west, then what about the people who slaughtered my grandfather, or torched my village or reduced my people to destitution?” That, in oversimplified form, is the cry now being heard from Kurds, Palestinians, Greek-Cypriots, Armenians, Krajina Serbs and everybody else in the former Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian or Soviet empires who is nursing a deep historical grievance.
Russian, Chinese or middle eastern paranoia might seem peculiar to westerners who believe that their countries’ influence in the world is overwhelmingly benign, and that their economic transactions with the rest of the world are generally beneficial to both parties. But it does not seem at all extraordinary in the corridors of a UN General Assembly where most member states have vivid, recent memories of fighting colonial wars against Nato members-or have lived through bloody regional conflicts which served as proxies for the cold war and cast the western powers in a less-than-angelic light. These memories have faded a little since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the apparent vindication of liberal capitalism as history’s end. But the embers are still glowing, and in places like Moscow-as well as Beijing and New Delhi-they have started to glow more brightly.