Negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina over the final status of Kosovo have officially failed, and Russia will veto any Western attempt at the UN Security Council to recognize the independence of this Serbian province populated by mostly ethnic Albanians.

At some point during the next three months, the United States and the European Union (EU) will give Kosovo the green light to unilaterally declare its independence.

But a few things must happen before then.

Next Steps for Kosovo

To avoid a repeat of the March 2004 riots, in which ethnic Albanians burned hundreds of Serbian homes and dozens of churches, NATO’s force in Kosovo will have to be certain that they have the right number of troops and that these troops are in all the right places.

The European Union also has to do some house-cleaning in anticipation of replacing the UN peacekeeping force (UNMIK) of roughly 2500 professionals. While nearly all the EU countries will recognize Kosovo’s independence, a handful of its 27 member-states have expressed understandable reluctance given their own internal secessionist conflicts. And while Kosovo’s independence would have greater legitimacy if endorsed by all the EU countries individually and collectively, a far more important European consensus concerns the continued political and economic development of this nominally Serbian province.

For the last eight years, Russia has consistently voted in the Security Council to renew the UN’s nation-building mandate in Kosovo under the condition that final status negotiations continue between Belgrade and Prishtina. If, however, Kosovo unilaterally declares independence, Moscow will likely veto any resolution that takes that independence for granted, including a renewed UN mandate. As a result, as soon as Kosovo declares, UNMIK will become obsolete, and a very large void must be filled very quickly.

Granted, the replacement of the UN’s crucial bureaucrats and peacekeepers by an EU contingent was an important part of UN Envoy Martti Ahtisaari’s popular plan for Kosovo’s phased and “supervised independence,” but Russia officially rejected this plan over the summer. Now the EU hopes to fill the void anyway, confident that it has found the least bad of all the options.

Cutting Russia Out

Intentional or not, this transition will effectively cut Russia out of every loop regarding the future of Kosovo as the EU and NATO become Kosovo’s sole protectors and developers. When the Russians are thrown out of a party, however, they have a knack for making the West regret the expulsion — whether in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East.

For instance, when Washington scolds Moscow for being “unproductive” in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, Moscow goes out of its way to provide nuclear fuel to Tehran. When Washington rewards the former Soviet Republic of Georgia for contributing 500 soldiers to the US mission in Iraq, Russian jets “accidentally” violate Georgian airspace. When Washington insists on Kosovo’s independence — regardless of UN approval — Moscow says it will recognize the pro-Russian secessionist provinces on its periphery, such as those in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Each gesture is a constant reminder that Moscow does not need the Soviet Union to be a major global player that demands and deserves attention.

In the Balkans specifically, Moscow is Belgrade’s backstop. The risks that Belgrade is willing to take are a direct reflection of Moscow’s encouragement or at least tacit approval. Rumors of a limited Russian military deployment to Serbia when Kosovo declares are beside the point; Belgrade can supplement its forces at the Kosovo border with thousands more, as long as it has Moscow’s consent and can credibly insist that such a supplement is merely to protect Serb refugees fleeing Kosovo. If this happens, the Kosovo police force, which has been trained and buffered by UNMIK, will be overwhelmed in the north and NATO forces will have to take up the slack, almost certainly at the expense of protecting Serbian enclaves deep inside Kosovo.

Cutting Russia Back In

There is no need to be alarmist about what Moscow is prepared to do to save face or pressure the West, if only because the Kremlin need not look far to apply some bland yet painful pressure on Western interests. And while there are no face-saving scenarios for both Moscow and Washington, there is still much to be negotiated between the two capitals in countless other arenas, which could limit the humiliation felt on either side.

First, only a few weeks ago, the Russian government suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE), which publicly regulated and documented the nature and quantity of all conventional weapons stationed in NATO and formerly Soviet countries. With the treaty’s suspension, Washington must obtain its intelligence on Russia’s military activity elsewhere. There was a time when Moscow wisely put its eggs in many baskets in its “near abroad,” but now those baskets are joining NATO, and Moscow feels naked without them. So, Moscow wants its clothes back, and the United States wants its eyes and ears back.

Second, not only is NATO soliciting new members from Russia’s buffer zone, but the United States wants to install anti-missile and radar stations in the Czech Republic and Poland—weaponry potentially aimed at Russia, though Washington says the system is intended to protect Europe from Iran. The details to be negotiated regarding these instillations are innumerable, but the one that has been causing a stir recently is the presence of Russian observers on site to ensure that Moscow will not face its own Cuban missile crisis.

Third, and most topical, whether Tehran intends to resume its nuclear weapons program or not, Iran needs a powerful ally at the UN Security Council. Moscow wants to be that ally in order to ensure its expanding energy and arms markets in the Middle East and Central Asia, but also because — given the U.S./Iranian tensions — Tehran’s friendship or even dependency on Moscow would guarantee Russia’s relevance at any and every negotiating table for the next decade.

The United States should explore a trade with Russia. If Moscow renews the CFE treaty, Washington could abandon its missile defense initiatives in Eastern Europe. Kosovo will not become part of that equation because both sides are simply too invested in their preferred outcome for the province. But if the two superpowers are reaching agreement on overarching security matters, there will be greater likelihood that they will find a modus operandi on Kosovo. Both Russia and Kosovo want to be taken seriously, and that is within Washington’s capabilities.

Serbia, however, is a different matter.

Dealing with Belgrade

In the short-term, the one thing the West agrees on is that NATO should and will remain in Kosovo long after it declares independence. Fortunately, NATO’s capacity and preparation in Kosovo make a destabilizing eruption of violence unlikely in the short term.

But if violence does erupt, Belgrade is unlikely to throw the first punch, at least not conventionally. There are, however, a number of bargaining chips that Belgrade wields that cannot be dismissed. Most of Kosovo’s electricity and 70% of its consumer goods and construction materials either come from or through Serbia proper. If Serbia goes through with sanctions or a blockade, such actions will hurt it as much as Kosovo. But the power of spite should never be underestimated in separatist conflicts. Kosovar Albanians would certainly pay such a price if it meant achieving independence. But the United States and EU would be wise to privately offer Belgrade something in return for its minimal cooperation in keeping Kosovo stable until such a dependency can be shifted to neighboring Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

EU membership is unquestionably the most powerful incentive for Belgrade to change course. Unfortunately, even the relatively moderate Serbian government (up for re-election in late January) has scoffed at the EU’s membership offers in return for its consent on Kosovo’s independence. However, once Serbia has shown its toughness by symbolically and politically standing up to the West — perhaps at its own expense — Belgrade will eventually want to negotiate its way into other international institutions on different terms and for explicitly non-Kosovo reasons.

In the meantime, it is unlikely that Kosovo’s declaration itself will inspire nearby separatists — whether Serbs in Bosnia or the Albanians in Macedonia or anywhere else — to unilaterally declare independence for their respective territories. Such an effort would be politically fruitless without either the international support that Kosovo enjoys or a war that engulfed the region and changed the rules of the game.

Fortunately, as long as NATO’s force in Kosovo has everything it asks for (and then some), such tempers can be cooled. And if Washington engages Moscow on larger security issues, Russia will be less likely to make a fuss. But either way, unless the EU is fully prepared to invest all its chips into Kosovo’s accelerated development, the West will be kicking this can down the road for many years to come.

David Young is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, a fellow at Abraham's Vision, and a graduate student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

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