The Kosovo precedent

by John Quiggin on July 22, 2022

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, one of the main lines pushed by Putin’s defenders was that the expansion of NATO posed a threat to Russia and that Ukraine was about to join. This didn’t stand up to even momentary scrutiny. The Baltic States had been members since 2004 without doing anything to threaten Russia.

And while Ukraine’s constitution included a goal of joining NATO, Zelenskiy was describing this as a ‘remote dream’ even before the invasion took place, and clearly indicated willingness to abandon the idea in return for peace.

But there is an important sense in which NATO shares responsibility for this disaster. The US intervention in Kosovo, including the bombing of Belgrade, was undertaken by NATO, to avoid the need to get the support of the UN Security Council, where Russia had a veto. This was a substantial breach of international law, followed by a much bigger breach in the invasion of Iraq.

At the time, there was general agreement in the ‘Foreign Policy Community’ aka ‘the Blob’, that

“The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened.”

This rule was implicitly confined to the US. In the brief period of US hyperpower, it could be assumed that the US, as sheriff of the global system, could enforce rules of non-agression against others, while also being judge and jury in its own actions. I argued against this at the time, pointing to the power of example, and was roundly criticised for my naivety.

But Putin was paying close attention, and drew the conclusion that if America was above the law, so was Russia. [1] The Kosovo precedent played a big role in his increasingly aggressive actions, culminating (so far) in the Ukraine invasion

Counterfactuals are tricky. Perhaps Putin would have acted in the same way, even without the precedent provided by NATO. But he was certainly encouraged by the sophisticated realists who dismissed international law as a figleaf.

fn1. Another participant in this debate, Glenn Greenwald, took the argument to its logical extreme and became a Putin backer, beginning with the invasion of Georgia in 2008.



nastywoman 07.22.22 at 8:54 am

‘Glenn Greenwald, took the argument to its logical extreme and became a Putin backer, beginning with the invasion of Georgia in 2008’.

Are you sure that Glenn didn’t become a Putin backer because Putin got Snowden?

and about:
‘Vladimir Putin has consistently used Kosovo’s Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence as legal justification for his military incursions into other former Soviet republics to support Russian-backed rebels, writes judge Dean B. Pineles’.

Does this judge know that ‘Vladimir Putin has consistently and far more times used some De-nazification of a country with a Jewish President as legal justification for his military incursions into other former Soviet republics to support Russian-backed rebels’?

And then somebody writes about some… legalistics – any Right-Wing Racist American Supremer could turn into a WIN for Citizens United in no time as all what I read about the Kosovo says it wasn’t an intervention from ‘just Clinton or America’ is was an intervention of how many other countries?
And that the whole UN Council didn’t sanction it???? – doesn’t make it for sure NOT ‘a precedent to Putins lonely Horrortrip.


nastywoman 07.22.22 at 10:11 am

and I really, really don’t like tbat… narrative as it reminds me far to much at Glenn Greenwald who from a pretty thoughtful human has turned into… into… and how
could I say it as…. as ‘nice’ and ‘humorous’ and joyful as possible? –

Who has turned into just another… FF von Clownstick – ’embracing’ as Jon Stewart so famously said the heritage of his worst enemy –
he – himself…


Martinned 07.22.22 at 11:39 am

The story of Kosovo is complicated. I should know, because there is a parallel universe where I didn’t tank my job interview and ended up hired to write my PhD about it 15 years ago. But if you’re going to write an entire blog post about the NATO intervention in Kosovo without even once referring to the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ even implicitly, you’re really missing a big part of the story.

Let me make that point another way: What “vital American interest” do you think was threatened in Kosovo?


oldster 07.22.22 at 11:41 am

I thought and think that it was a huge mistake for the US to invade Iraq, inter alia because it was a violation of the rules-based international order that the US and the world generally had an interest in defending.
But with respect to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I think we should keep two counterfactuals separate:
1) if the US had not invaded Iraq and intervened in Kosovo, would Putin have declined to invade Ukraine? Here my answer is, “no, he would still have invaded.” Putin’s current ambitions — trying to reconstruct the USSR and the glories of the Tsarist empire — were not provoked by anything the US or NATO did, and are not licensed, legitimated, or enabled by anything they did. Putin is motivated by his own fantasies, and a counterfactual record of infinite past restraint from the US would not have restrained him from pursuing them.
2) if the US had not invaded Iraq and intervened in Kosovo, would the rest of the world be responding to Putin’s invasion differently? Would international bodies (the UN inter alia) be responding differently? Here it seems possible that there would be some difference.
Not a huge difference: the US and UK would still be doing what they are doing, in coming to Ukraine’s defense. North Korea would still be doing what it is doing in attempting to profit by helping Russia. Uruguay, Mali, and Micronesia would still be sitting on the sidelines. The fact is, most nations simply do not care what the US did 20 years ago.
But with some countries (France? Germany?) and some institutions, and at the margin, there might be less hesitation about offering a staunch defense of Ukraine if the US had a cleaner record.
And it is a matter of record that last winter when the US was sounding the alarm about Putin’s plans to invade, the French were skeptical of US claims directly because of the lies that Cheney, Bolton et. co. told in the runup to Iraq. So, at the very least, the US intel community would have more credibility in this counterfactual.
So: there might have been some marginal differences in international response. But would Putin have invaded? Absolutely. Does the US invasion of Iraq and intervention in Kosovo bear any responsibility for his invasion? Absolutely not.


Hidari 07.22.22 at 12:34 pm

Interestingly enough, an article in FAIR just pointed this out. In that the ‘arguments’ for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are essentially the same as the ‘arguments’ for Nato’s (i.e. the United States’) invasion of Yugoslavia. Of course, the situation was reversed, as in that war, as it was the Russians supporting the Yugoslavs (‘The Serbs’ in Western discourse), while the ‘West’ (i.e. the Americans) support the Kosovans/KLA.

In both cases, the ‘reason’ for invasion are spurious (or at least not the real reason).

Again, differences in regime media are openly split on partisan lines. In the 1990s ‘Western’ (i.e. US, plus its colonies) media all supported the Kosovans against the Yugoslavs (‘the Serbs’). Russian media supported the Yugoslavians.

Now it’s completely the reverse (of course). ‘Western’ media support the Ukrainains, Russian media support the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) (interestingly, most Westerners have never even heard of these groups/’countries’).

All of this of course is eminently predictable in terms of what we know of Great Power politics and the Political economy of the Mass Media, (cf Manufacturing Consent), and none of it should come as any surprise to any seasoned (i.e. jaded) viewer of the current political scene, although the current propaganda campaigns are unusually shrill and stupid. (at least in the West).


Chris Bertram 07.22.22 at 1:57 pm

It is true that Kosovo has been used as a precedent to justify all kinds of action. Now, that’s by Putin, but it was also held up as a successful intervention that vindicated something like the R2P doctrine which later got invoked by some of the liberal/left enthusiasts for war in Iraq.

However, at the time we already had considerable experience of the wars in Yugoslavia and how things were likely to go if Milosevic were not stopped. We had seen how things had developed in Bosnia and it seemed likely that massacres on a similar scale would be repeated in Kosovo if the Yugoslav army and paramilitaries were allowed a free hand. (There are earlier precedents too, such as the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia which stopped Pol Pot.)

John writes of “the sophisticated realists who dismissed international law as a figleaf” but they weren’t the only people in the argument. There were also people who saw the tension between international law granting sovereign inviolability and international humantiarian law and who thought that once a threshold of human rights violation is crossed, a state loses its immunity against outside intervention. That doesn’t mean that intervention is always prudent or right, since it can make things worse.


nastywoman 07.22.22 at 2:07 pm

‘once a threshold of human rights violation is crossed, a state loses its immunity against outside intervention. That doesn’t mean that intervention is always prudent or right, since it can make things worse’.


Starry Gordon 07.22.22 at 5:10 pm

The Kosovo drama was also mirrored in Georgia-Ossetia. I doubt if Mr. Putin and Co. are naive enough to believe that the US government/ruling class (or those of any other great power) actually care about some rules not backed up by explicit power. He might have paid some attention to the neocon stuff about destroying Russia that floated around in recent years. Given his origins and apparent life experience, I think he is rather like a Mafia don, whose first rule is “Do unto others before they do unto you.”


Thomas P 07.22.22 at 6:41 pm

Anyone who claim that NATO was just intervening in Kosovo to prevent a genocide forget that Clinton choose early on to support the KLA, a drug financed separatist group using terrorist methods, rather than the more peaceful Rugova. Then there was the ultimatum in Rambuillet that included conditions like free access to all of Yugoslavia for NATO-forces that were obviously impossible for them to agree to. Clinton wanted war, but I don’t know why. Maybe some kind of revenge for the civil war in Bosnia.

The Baltic states are small. They can’t realistically do anything to threaten Russia, and in addition, they joined when Russia was still too weak to do much about it. Ukraine is a different matter. I think it is clear that the threat of NATO expanding further and further east was a contributing factor to the invasion. After Ukraine, USA could continue trying to turn other former Soviet republics, and finally breaking apart Russia itself. There was recently a conference in Washington “Decolonizing Russia”.


faustusnotes 07.23.22 at 1:09 am

Nothing more on any of my posts, please


LFC 07.23.22 at 3:36 am

A small technical point re Chris Bertram’s comment, which I generally agree with.

“International humanitarian law” is, somewhat counterintuitively, a synonym for the law of armed conflict, i.e., for the law that governs how such conflicts are supposed to be conducted (e.g., no deliberate targeting of civilians, humane treatment of POWs, etc.). That’s what international lawyers mean when they talk about “international humanitarian law. ”

When they want to talk about humanitarian intervention and R2P, different phrases are used. So the conflict Chris references is between sovereignty on the one hand and, on the other hand, the old customary law doctrine of humanitarian intervention (which, though it’s always been controversial, goes way back) and its updated version in ‘the responsibility to protect’. Putin tried to invoke something like R2P as one of the justifications for his invasion, but the case for it was, I think, a lot more plausible and stronger in Kosovo. That’s separate of course from the question of how NATO actually conducted its air campaign, since the question of whether an intervention is justified is separate from the issue of how it’s actually carried out.

I don’t keep up w the scholarly lit. on these questions, but there are some older references that are still helpful in orienting one to the basic issues, e.g. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention, H. Bull (editor), Intervention in World Politics, and the relevant chapter in Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars. He also wrote something on Kosovo, reprinted in Arguing about War. There’s also a whole bunch of relevant work by intl lawyers like Ian Brownie, Phillippe Sands etc.


LFC 07.23.22 at 3:42 am

Correction: Brownlie


nastywoman 07.23.22 at 8:44 am

‘I think it is clear that the threat of NATO expanding further and further east was a contributing factor to the invasion’.

only in the heads of old Eastern Nationalistic friends of THE MIGHTY RUSSIAN EMPIRE
somehow –
wonderously? –
and laughingly –
also in the heads of some
who want to own some Libs?

What ever happened to Glenn Greenwald?


banned commenter 07.23.22 at 4:47 pm

Deleted – banned commenter is banned


oldster 07.23.22 at 5:32 pm

A minor point, but thinking of Kosovo as a “precedent” may distort our assessment of Putin’s thinking.
History began a long time ago, and the clear precedent that held over millennia was that monarchs and warlords raided each other’s territory and meddled in their affairs whenever they thought they could get away with it.
The very idea of a rules-based international order was exactly unprecedented when the Allies created the UN after the war. (Yes, Kant’s treatise; yes, the League. The first was an idle fancy, the second a concrete lesson in why it could never work.)
When NATO meddled in Kosovo, no one with Putin’s sense of history thought, “my god! A new precedent has been established!” They simply saw the same pattern that has obtained for millennia. Perhaps it was irritating that the meddlers made lofty pronouncements, but claims of divine legitimation are also as old as the records of war.
From a certain.perspective, then, there simply was no “Kosovo precedent”. There was the normal interstate behavior any sensible person expects.
And Putin is not responding to events in the ’90s or the aughts but simply following, as he sees it, the normal course of history.


LFC 07.23.22 at 11:47 pm

banned commenter @13

(1) I do not think the analogy to French involvement in the American revolutionary war is at all apt, but it would take too long now to go into that.

(2) Russia did intervene militarily in a civil war. It also launched a ground invasion of a neighboring sovereign state in clear violation of international law. Putin did say in his lengthy speech just preceding the invasion that the human rights of separatist Russians or Russian-speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk were being violated — he didn’t use the exact phrases “human rights” or “responsibility to protect,” but even a skim of that long speech will show, I think, that among the several justifications he floated there was a supposed “humanitarian intervention” element (though he didn’t use the phrase).

(3) From the standpoint of “humanitarian intervention,” which, as just mentioned, Putin did not primarily rely on but at least hinted was one of his several justifications, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has real problems qualifying; indeed I don’t think it qualifies, period. Putin’s other justifications are also weak. (I would have to review that long, rambling speech.)

(4) The “Kosovo precedent” for Putin’s action therefore fails because NATO presented the main reason for its air campaign as one of preventing (further) atrocities by Milosevic, and it had at least a non-ridiculous (which does not, of course, mean airtight or non-contestable) claim that that is what it was doing — the situation in Ukraine is not comparable, though doubtless there were some atrocities on both sides in the civil war in the east.

(5) In sum, from the standpoint of international law the Russian invasion of Ukraine is illegal. You’d have to look very, very hard to find an international lawyer who would defend it, if you could find one at all. Whether the 1999 NATO air campaign was illegal is more debatable: there’s a case for its illegality, and also a case that it was a justified humanitarian intervention. Putin can cite this precedent, that precedent, and the other precedent, he can claim he was invited to intervene in a civil war, he can turn cartwheels and give two-hour-long speeches about his vision of Russia’s history and unfairly lost greatness, and in the end none of it can justify sending tens of thousands of soldiers marching on the capital of a sovereign state. That’s what Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits, and none of the exceptions applies here.


John Quiggin 07.24.22 at 9:55 am

Chris @6 There was a strong case for intervention. But
(a) The US could have made a much bigger effort to get Russia to agree to a UN-backed intervention
(b) Having decided to act without UN authorization, NATO should have exercised maximum restraint in its actions, focusing solely on direct protection of Kosovo. The bombing of Belgrade was an example of the way an initial, arguably necessary breach of international law paves the way for more. And, as you observe, the Iraq war took all this further


John Quiggin 07.24.22 at 9:56 am

I’ll be deleting all pro-Putin comments from now on, and permanently banning anyone who attempts to post them,


Fake Dave 07.24.22 at 11:18 am

If the permanent Security Council and its veto are the foundation of international law, then those five countries are effectively above the law. It’s a “who watches the watchmen?” situation. Their legitimate purpose and the basis for their special privileges (beyond “might makes right”) is that they are the enforcement mechanism for the UN’s sacred mission of “never again.” If one of them is abusing the veto (ie the US with Israel), then the UN as a whole can no longer fulfill its mission.

If preventing the next Holocaust is a moral imperative (and it is), then it doesn’t go away just because the Security Council deadlocks. I’m not defending specific interventions (especially not Iraq, where the UN was very badly used), but with the way the Permanent Council operates now, any argument that countries can’t act without its sanction is also an argument for impunity for those five countries and their proxies. They can invade wherever, bomb whoever, and the Security Council, as such, will do nothing to stop them. It’s only the threat of other powers acting as individuals or coalitions that can provide any sort of check on a rogue state in those circumstances (as we’re seeing with Russia right now). If that is against international law, then that law strikes me as wrong.


James Harrison 07.25.22 at 12:23 am

I had a very different reaction to the Iraq invasion and the Kosovo intervention. The latter may have been inadvisable, but I saw it as the umpteenth case of a politician caving in to political pressure—I had the same take on Libya. The Clinton administration took hits every night on the tube about the ghastly things going on in the former Yugoslav as many a prime minister did in analogous situations in the 19th Century. I never got the impression Bill Clinton was eager to get involved, just the reverse. Same with Obama and Qaddafi, though Hilary seemed more into it. The Iraq invasion, on the other hand, was a pure act of national hubris. I opposed it vehemently at the time and even showed up for the giant demonstration against it even though street protests aren’t usually my thing. Anyhow, the attack on Ukraine is even more inexcusable than Bush’s folly.


LFC 07.25.22 at 3:01 am

In lieu of a long comment, I’d urge people interested to search on “sources of international law” and also glance at the long Wiki entry on humanitarian intervention.

The old customary international law doctrine of humanitarian intervention referred to situations that “shock the conscience of mankind,” or words close to that. The doctrine was controversial, but it existed. Whether the UN and the need for UN authorization of the use of force completely supersede the customary doctrine (and its evolution) is a debated question. A lot of ink has been spilled on these questions. If there were simple, clear-cut rules that always applied and that all experts agree on, the ink would be unnecessary.

In particular, note the section of the Wiki entry on four different approaches to the question of hum. intervention and its legal status etc. (the only section I had time to look at right now). If everyone agreed on the rules and their application, there wouldn’t be four different approaches.


TM 07.25.22 at 1:16 pm

The Kosovo war was clearly an act of aggression, and it was executed in a needlessly destructive way (measured by the proclaimed aim of protecting civilians) and also in a needlessly arrogant way, openly proclaiming that universal rules are not binding for “our side”. This arrogance has quite predictably backfired and now provides propaganda fodder for Putin. Nevertheless there is absolutely no reason to believe that Putin’s attacking Ukraine is in any causal way related to the Kosovo war.

That the Iraq war was illegal and immoral as well as stupid and a huge mistake is universally known and doesn’t need to be discussed any further. It was also far worse than the Kosovo war for several reasons, among them the fact that in Kosovo, NATO intervened in an ongoing conflict not of it’s own making, whereas the Iraq disaster was created by Bush alone. It’s also hard to argue that the Kosovo intervention was driven by conventional selfish motives. Again, that the Iraq war somehow gave Putin the idea to start wars of aggression of his own is nonsense. If anything, it should have been a warning that this kind of “great power politics” rarely ends well.

The justifications Putin has come up with for the Ukraine war are similar if not identical to the justifications the Nazis used for invading first Czechoslovakia and then Poland. Nothing new at all.


Thomas P 07.26.22 at 7:52 am

TM, what Kosovo and Iraq did show was how weak international law is, that if you are a great power you can do stuff like this and get away with it. Putin’s mistake was believing that the West still considered Russia a great power and that the same lack of rules would apply to him. You could see the same before WW II with smaller wars gradually eroding the confidence in the League of Nations.

These wars also showed that the West could be militarily agressive, and thus a potential threat, meaning that the need for a buffer zone became more relevant.


Trader Joe 07.26.22 at 11:26 am

As long as we’re whizzing down the counter-factual highway – where would the finger of fault be pointing if the US had not intervened and Milosovic had in fact succeeded in the genocide he was clearly interested and willing to perpetrate (and indeed had begun to perpetrate)?

In my opinion – Bill Clinton would be regarded as the Neville Chamberlin of the 1990s and the state now known as Russia would have licked its chops to have a staunch ally on the doorstep of Europe.

Clinton was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t – preventing actual genocide seems a worth threshold for releasing the stealth bombers since the Europe of that time didn’t seem willing to even organize a benefit concert let alone provide actual support (they did begrudgingly accept some refugees – they’ve done much better this time w/Ukrainian refugees).


EWIA 07.26.22 at 4:01 pm

That the Iraq war was illegal and immoral as well as stupid and a huge mistake is universally known and doesn’t need to be discussed any further.

How convenient. I see ‘stupid’ and ‘a huge mistake’, which are questionable words to use to glide over the massive death toll (dwarfing Ukraine).


LFC 07.27.22 at 1:04 am

Iraq ’03 was clearly illegal, just as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is clearly illegal.

The Kosovo intervention, by contrast, was a use of force whose legality was reasonably subject to debate: there was a case to be made for its illegality, and also a case (albeit perhaps less strong) to made for its legality. The Independent Intl Commission on Kosovo, in its report to then UN Sec Gen Kofi Annan, concluded:

[The Kosovo intervention] was illegal because it did not receive approval from the UN Security Council but it was legitimate because all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted and there was no other way to stop the killings and atrocities in Kosovo. The Commission has however criticized the way the intervention was conducted in several aspects.

Kosovo did not so much show how weak international law is; it showed rather how sometimes indeterminate international law is, and/or how occasionally the usual rules don’t accommodate certain situations: hence the commission’s conclusion of “illegal but legitimate.”


Fake Dave 07.27.22 at 2:03 am

We don’t actually have a clear picture of the number of deaths in Ukraine now, much less what it will be by war’s end (whenever that is). The first few months of the Iraq War went much smoother for the US/coalition than Ukraine has for Russia. The worst carnage in Iraq came as a result of the occupation, insurgency, and civil wars, not the initial invasion or bombings. I understand the “you break it, you bought it” logic of blaming the invaders for the explosion in sectarian bloodshed, but Saddam’s Iraq was always unstable and wracked by violence so some sort of insurgency or civil war was likely even without Bush’s war.


TM 07.27.22 at 7:33 am

EWIA: I said “immoral as well as stupid and a huge mistake”. Regarding the death toll, do you know the death toll of the Ukraine war? I don’t. Certainly it is very high, and has been going on for “only” six months yet. Also the destruction of cities and infrastructures is horrific, and the number of civilians forced to flee is huge.

ThomasP: As if the great powers haven’t engaged in warfare before 1999. Have they been “getting away with it” though? Vietnam was a debacle for the US, Afghanistan wasa debacle for the Soviet Union, Iraq was a debacle for the US again, Ukraine looks like a debacle for Putin’s Russia (but so far he hasn’t paid a price for it).

“These wars also showed that the West could be militarily agressive, and thus a potential threat” Here you are going off the rails. US and Soviet Union resp. Russia have been engaging in plenty of proxy wars but never threatened each other directly (with the potential exception of the Cuba crisis, which for that very reason is remembered). The Iraq war has not changed that equation. There was no threat to Russia, never. It would make no sense anyway, and not just because of nuclear deterrent. The idea that NATO would somehow be tempted to try to conquer Russian territory is totally nonsensical. That Russia on the other hand would try to conquer the territory of neighbor states, including (if Putin thought he could get away with it) that of NATO members, is a reality.


Moz in Oz 07.28.22 at 12:02 am

where would the finger of fault be pointing if the US had not intervened and Milosovic had in fact succeeded in the genocide

Hopefully not in the same position as Netanyahu.

All this talk of “preventing the next Holocaust” seems out of place to me since we have established repeatedly since WWII that genocide is at best permitted, but sometimes even encouraged, by world powers including the UN and US (and Russia, when they were a world power).

Unless, of course, we accept the widely held belief that white people are special, and what happens to them is important. Darfur compared to Bosnia was the subject of some hand-wringing at the time, but it was accepted that no-one with power was interested so… ‘dogs bark but the caravan moves on’. It seems (most) Ukrainians are white enough, and close enough to Europe, that they matter (note the problems non-white Ukrainian refugees have crossing the borders).

Or perhaps it’s the grain they produce. Hard to tell what the real motivations are in RealPolitik.


Ray Vinmad 07.28.22 at 2:53 am

The thing is that different experts like Kennan said Russia would perceive it as a threat at the time NATO expanded.

This was correct. It’s not entirely an after the fact justification. Russia has perceived a variety of things NATO does as a threat–because they are always a reminder of what NATO could do, and US capriciousness and aggression. Russia is a weaker actor, with a bad history with the USA, with economic and strategic interests that might not coalesce with US interests. Just knowing you have a shadow hanging over you and having to watch the shadow to see how it moves can have a substantial effect. Security isn’t the absence of direct threats alone but a wider realm of freedom without worrying about threats.

That doesn’t justify the invasion any more than the US militarism to snuff out the supposed Communist threat was justified. It’s not right. It’s damaging to the country that imagines it can make a clean sweep and get rid of danger and a massive humanitarian crime to the people in their way. But it seems to follow a similar logic–so it is an explanation, not a justification.


Thomas P 07.28.22 at 6:11 am

TM, as far as being punished by the rest of the world, the Ukraine war is unique in how much Russia is being sanctioned and having assets sized. No one put sanctions on USA or the others in the coalition for invading Iraq. This is different from war itself being expensive.

USA tried a minor invasion of Russia during the civil war. Directly after WW II USA threatened the Soviet Union with a nuclear attack “we’re going to drop it on you” if they didn’t pull out of Iran, leaving it in the Western sphere of influence. Anyway, the threat isn’t a full scale invasion of Russia. It’s gradually gaining control of former Soviet republics, and then proceeding to support “independence movements” inside Russia itself. I mentioned the “decolonizing Russia” conference before.

LFC “because all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted”

Yeah, funny that. You make impossible demands like in Rambuillet and then you go to war because you claim you ran out of diplomatic options. Add in US support to the UCK separatists to help create the conflict in the first place.


TM 07.28.22 at 9:29 am

Thomas P 31: “Anyway, the threat isn’t a full scale invasion of Russia. It’s gradually gaining control of former Soviet republics, and then proceeding to support “independence movements” inside Russia itself.”

Isn’t it remarkable how precisely you are describing Russian imperialist tactics but projecting them onto NATO?


Daragh McDowell 07.28.22 at 9:59 am

As someone following all of this extremely closely, since well before the current invasion, for professional reasons it is difficult to understate how thoroughly mistaken the OP is. The Kosova precedent, such as it is, has absolutely nothing to do with either the 2014 or 2022 invasions, nor has it shaped Russian foreign policy in any meaningful way aside from serving as a cynical rhetorical fig leaf when convenient.

Russian military interventions in the post-Soviet space and the ‘frozen conflicts’ in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia all pre-date NATO intervention in Bosnia, much less Kosova. And Russian hostility to NATO’s actions against the Serbs and their proxies wasn’t driven by a commitment to abstract foreign policy principles, it was due to a cultural affinity with the Serbs and a shared sense of anti-Muslim Slavic chauvinism (see, e.g., Yeltsin’s comments about the Central Asian republics as the USSR was crumbling).

More to the point, Russia’s actions in Ukraine so far have given the lie that the invasion is primarily driven by geopolitical concerns or NATO expansion (a non-existent prospect prior to the invasion). In all of the occupied territories Russian forces have devoted considerable, conscious effort to not only destroying Ukrainian state institutions but Ukrainian cultural identity as a whole. This has included extrajudicial executions of certain activists, mass deportations of groups of Ukrainians, and the removal of Ukrainian children from their families for the purposes of Russification. This is not surprising given Putin and his clique have consistently expressed hostility to the concept of an independent Ukrainian nation, much less nation-state, in its entirety.

In short, what we’re seeing is a systematic attempt to eradicate “Ukrainianness” (for want of a better word) itself, in a campaign that arguably meets the criteria of a genocide. NATO expansion had little, if anything to do with it, much less Kosova.


lurker 07.28.22 at 11:49 am

“It’s gradually gaining control of former Soviet republics, and then proceeding to support “independence movements” inside Russia itself. I mentioned the “decolonizing Russia” conference before.” Thomas P, 31
Let me rephrase that: it’s gradually losing control over former subject peoples and then fearing that more subject peoples might try to get independence. It’s like all empires: first you lose Indochina, then you have to abandon Tunisia and Morocco to focus on keeping Algeria French, finally you can barely hold New Caledonia and have to worry about Corsicans getting ideas.


LFC 07.28.22 at 2:20 pm

@ Thomas P

Rambouillet was one-sided, that’s true. So the counterfactual question is whether a more balanced agreement would have resulted in a settlement that ended the humanitarian violations and granted Kosovo a significant measure of autonomy.


Thomas P 07.28.22 at 6:45 pm

TM, both Russia and USA has used those kinds of tactics plenty of times. Feel free to claim it’s hypocritical of Russia to complain when it is done to them, but it’s not projection, it’s a realistic fear.

I don’t know how significant US influence on the Maidan protests really were, but John McCain shaking hand, not with any politician but with the leader of far-right Svoboda party responsibly for violence at the protests, and the leaked phone call where Victoria Nuland discuss who she think should be part of the next Ukrainian government certainly hint at some involvement, especially considering a long US tradition of this kind of interference in other countries.


J-D 07.28.22 at 11:43 pm

To take just one single illustrative example of many possible: the same events might be perceived in different ways by a Lithuanian* and a Russian*, with one perception being ‘NATO has gained control of Lithuania’ and another being ‘Lithuania has secured the protection of NATO membership’. It’s possible to recognise that these different perceptions exist, and to recognise why they exist, and yet also to evaluate one perception as being less well-founded than the other.

I don’t imagine that all Lithuanians would perceive this situation in the same way; I don’t imagine that all Russians would; to repeat myself, this is a single illustrative example.


Hidari 07.29.22 at 6:34 am

I see everyone is determined to tiptoe round the key point here, which is not whether the ‘special military operation’ is justified (it’s obviously not) but whether or not it’s a good idea for the ‘West’ (a euphemism) to send arms to the resistance? And if it is (and believe me, it’s not) why is it appropriate to send arms to the Ukrainians and yet not to send arms to the Iraqi army (and, later, the Iraqi resistance) when the Americans (sorry, the ‘international community’) invaded Iraq, when the Americans (sorry ‘the international community’) inavded Libya and when the Americans (sorry ‘the international community’) invaded Afghanistan? Or, pushing even further at the frontiers of probability, why not arm the Palestinians? Does anyone think that would be a good thing to do, bringing peace to the Middle East?

Far from being like the Second World War (the only war the self-proclaimed Decent Left, and their current descendants, seem to know), the so-called coloured ‘revolutions’ increasingly resemble, in hindsight, the Serb uprising of 1875 (and other events around that time, and slightly later), and the ‘special military operation’ resembles The First Balkan War of 1912.

All of which were, of course, in hindsight, preparatory to WW1.


J-D 07.29.22 at 6:35 am

To take, again, a single illustrative example: there is an obvious sense in which it is correct to say that the Scottish independence movement is a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom, and it could be reasonable to describe it that way, but there is no good reason to acquiesce in a tacit assumption that the integrity of the United Kingdom must be a good thing and that it must be wrong to threaten it. It was correct for the government of the United Kingdom to accept that Scotland should be able to leave the Union if that’s what the people of Scotland want, and that the fact that this could mean breaking up the Union did not justify a veto.


nastywoman 07.29.22 at 7:29 am

In conclusion:
‘Glenn Greenwald, took the argument to its logical extreme and became a Putin backer, and in order to excuse Putins horrific War he became the utmost (in)famous ‘Whataboutist’ on the Internet.

BUT unlike Monty Python –
who –
before Glenn Greenwald were the utmost famous ‘Artists of Whataboutism’
with their: ‘and now to something completely different’ – Glenn Greenwald isn’t joking when he whataboutists:

Whatabout: other illegal wars that kill huge numbers of people.

Whatbaout: using US and German weapons.

Whatabout: It is well known that the primary drivers of this mass murder and slaughter are the USA, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Whatabout: The UAE and KSA are committing mass murder there, have induced a nation-wide humanitarian crisis and famine, have blockaded ports and bomb cities indiscriminately using western-supplied weapons.

Yet Germany has done nothing to interfere with petrochemical trade from these aggressor nations, and there is no movement – in real life or on here – to do anything of the sort.

Whatabout: I’m aware Crooked Timber have never posted anything about the Yemen war (though Conor Foley did take the time to write a post in support of the Libya intervention in 2011, so it’s not as if CT is above these kinds of things).

AND then his two utmost Evil Whataboutism –

1.Whatabout: ‘Why is your tolerance of unprovoked invasion so much lower when Russia does it to Ukraine than when the KSA and UAE, backed by the USA, do it to Yemen using German weapons?’
AS if
My tolerance of unprovoked invasion – REALLY would be -‘so much lower when Russia does it to Ukraine than when the KSA and UAE, backed by the USA, do it to Yemen using German weapons?’

‘Why are Germans willing to stand next to Ukrainian Nazi flags and pictures of Nazi-era collaborationists – as if ‘Germans’ -(or ‘Americans’ in general) would be willing to stand next to Ukrainian Nazi flags and pictures of Nazi-era collaborationists?

And such – very, very un-funny Whataboutism -(even as Glenn Greenwald so famously has become the successor of ‘trump’ as the Internets Mosts Successful Clown) is very very dangerous – as there are a lot of people out there -(in the Meta Verse) who believe such
pretty obvious Putin Propaganda.

And –
THIS should be very easy to understand.


Tm 07.29.22 at 8:50 am

36, sure, the US and Russia both use the same tactics.

Russia has repeatedly staged and equipped ethnic-Russian militias to destabilize neighboring countries, has militarily attacked neighboring countries, annexed their territory, deported non-Russian citizens, taken measures to suppress or even eradicate the cultural identity of non-Russian nations.

The US has … well Somebody wrote on the internet something about the CIA yada yada mambo jumbo so obviously, the US and Russia both blah blah imperialism can’t we just agree to let Putin do to Ukraine whatever he likes…

Not interested in any more „arguments“ like this, thank you.


nastywoman 07.29.22 at 7:41 pm

‘I see everyone is determined to tiptoe round the key point here, which is not whether the ‘special military operation’ is justified (it’s obviously not) but whether or not it’s a good idea for the ‘West’ (a euphemism) to send arms to the resistance? And if it is (and believe me, it’s not)

Was that REALLY written JUST to be able to write:
‘(and believe me, it’s not)’

my friend from 2008 – can you PLEASE tell the World

(and just stopping bombing and killing RIGHT AWAY)


LFC 07.29.22 at 9:28 pm

Hidari @38 writes:

…why is it appropriate to send arms to the Ukrainians and yet not to send arms to the Iraqi army (and, later, the Iraqi resistance) when the Americans (sorry, the ‘international community’) invaded Iraq, when the Americans (sorry ‘the international community’) invaded Libya and when the Americans (sorry ‘the international community’) invaded Afghanistan?

Those three examples do not all stand on the same footing. Just taking Afghanistan and Iraq for now, the invasion of Afghanistan in ’01 had a considerably solider justification (the Taliban’s harboring of al Qaeda and refusal to cut ties with it, at least until the invasion was basically already under way) than the invasion of Iraq in ’03 (which of course was premised on incorrect and ill-supported suppositions about Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of WMD, plus other bad arguments). There might (emphasis on “might”) have been a case for sending arms to Saddam Hussein’s government to resist the invasion, despite the character of Saddam’s regime — though I can’t recall offhand whether any country did that, though presumably Saddam had bought weapons from someone, as many govts do — but there was no case for arming the Taliban.


lurker 07.29.22 at 10:51 pm

” And if it is (and believe me, it’s not) why is it appropriate to send arms to the Ukrainians and yet not to send arms to the Iraqi army (and, later, the Iraqi resistance) when the Americans (sorry, the ‘international community’) invaded Iraq, when the Americans (sorry ‘the international community’) inavded Libya and when the Americans (sorry ‘the international community’) invaded Afghanistan?” Hidari, 38
1) Please explain why we should believe you. What would the West gain by not arming Ukraine?
2) The Iraqi Army was not short of weapons (many, possibly most, sold by the West), and the Ba’ath regime controlled most of the country (minus the Kurdish bits). Any self-respecting popular government would have put up a hell of a fight given those advantages. Can you imagine Cuba falling as easily as Iraq?


nastywoman 07.30.22 at 6:26 am

But on the other hand –
Whatabout that I just read on twitter:

‘As he cheers on the Saudi LIV Golf event at his course, Trump tells families of 9/11 victims that we “still haven’t gotten to the bottom of 9/11.” Seriously. He said that’.

Whatabout working together with Evil Oligarchs in solving the Climate Crisis
in… in… ‘golfing’?

As FAUST NEVER would have made a golfing contract with the Devil!


TM 07.30.22 at 8:41 am

Let’s also point out that the Svoboda Party (cf 36) never played a big role in Ukrainian politics and after the Euromaidan lost any relevance (, so if McCain‘s alleged handshake with the party leader is proof of American meddling, we have to conclude that American meddling isn’t all that effective. Fascist conspiracy stories are always self-defeating.

More about politicians shaking hands with far right party leaders of other countries:

And so on…

Putin personally or other important Kremlin figures have supported pretty much every European far right party, plus of course Trump. Of course he does that with the intention to interfere in these countries‘ internal politics (and he has been quite open about it). In at least one case he has been successful.


Tm 07.30.22 at 8:42 am


Fake Dave 07.30.22 at 8:54 am

Saddam Hussein was a brutal fascist dictator with a habit of invading his neighbors and gassing minorities. Zelenskiy is a milquetoast comedian democratically elected on a peace platform. There are obvious reasons besides racism and American exceptionalism why people in peaceful and democratic countries would identify with and defend one regime but not the other just as there are obvious reasons for despots everywhere to oppose popular sovereignty anywhere.

Thomas P, Hidari, and other equivocators and appologists aren’t acknowledging that not all “resistance” movements are equally legitimate or even defensible. Just because Hamas and Hezballah have fought against imperialism and occupation doesn’t mean they can’t also be oppressors themselves or that it’s right for the Iranians to continue arming them. Just because the US has been an imperialist oppressor many times in the past and supported some quite dubious “freedom fighters,” doesn’t mean it can’t also support legitimate governments for legitimate reasons.

NATO exists in the first place for the very legitimate reason that the Soviets had just conquered most of Eastern Europe and no one except maybe Stalin knew where they would stop. The idea that Truman and Churchill are responsible for starting the Cold War or that international communism was never a genuine threat is just revisionism. The demented psychopath in the Kremlin plotting extermination campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitans,” funding violent revolutionary parties all over the world, and drinking himself to death* obviously had something to do with it.

We can find a lot of fault with later NATO leaders for failing to make lasting peace during the periods where the USSR had relatively sane leadership, but groupthink and policy inertia are a large part of that. The idea that all anti-communism was just a cynical excuse for chauvinism and empire-building is ahistorical. Just because we know now that the threat was overblown and the Kremlinologists were blowing smoke doesn’t mean the USSR was some kind of innocent victim. They were an agressive imperialist power that quite eagerly engaged in tit-for-tat proxy wars and violently subjugated their wealker neighbors and internal minorities just as the Romanovs did before and Putin is doing now. Moscow has been bullying and brutalizing Ukraine since before the US even existed. They’ve never needed to be provoked and are perfectly capable of reaping what they sow. They armed North Vietnam and relished American defeat, but it was still the US’s war to lose. I don’t see how Ukraine is any different (except that their government was actually elected). It’s still Russia’s war to lose and I for one am quite glad that they are. Whatever the (unstated) drawbacks of arming the Ukrainians actually prove to be, I sincerely doubt they’ll be as tragic for peace on earth as if the Russians actually win.

*Unless Beria did it.


John Quiggin 07.30.22 at 7:28 pm

Calling a halt on comments.


TM 08.04.22 at 12:55 pm

A good summary of some leftists’ response (really a minority, and maybe not really leftists…)

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