Russia flexes new muscle in Europe
Its resurgence means confronting the US and the EU on key issues, including Kosovo's independence.
From the Baltics to the Balkans, Russia's resurgence is beginning to tie Europe in knots; creating tensions among nations and fears of ethnic instability and border disputes, and divisions between the US and its continental partners.Skip to next paragraph
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In nearly every key relationship Russia has with Europe, the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin – who this week hinted he may stay in power – has pushed its way back to a central place at the decisionmaking table on Kosovo, Iran, energy, military alliances, and nuclear proliferation. And as a key supplier of natural gas to Europe, it's managed to do so at very little economic risk to itself, say diplomats and experts in Europe.
Take the highly emotional question of the territory of Kosovo here in Serbia.
A mere year ago it seemed Kosovo would soon be independent. After seven years of a UN mission and billions of dollars from Europe to stabilize the region, the script went like this: Belgrade would deliver the Kosovar Albanians. Moscow wouldn't interfere with Kosovo independence, allowing the Balkan crisis to be brought to a close. Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari might even win the Nobel Prize for a grand plan to grant sovereignty to Kosovo's majority Albanian population with a guarantee of minority rights for Serbs.
But Russia has departed from the script, strongly backing Belgrade's efforts to keep Kosovo ahead of a crucial Dec. 10 deadline for independence.
It's a move Serbs welcome.
"We thought Kosovo was lost," says Ljubica Gojgic, a foreign-affairs specialist at B92 TV in Belgrade. "But now we feel very differently. We feel we have a protector or an advocate in Moscow that will help represent our views in a just manner."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week emphasized that the current negotiations were not open-ended, and underscored Kosovo's independence as the only workable option in US eyes.
But no Belgrade leaders will approve that by the Dec. 10 deadline, setting up a troubling course of events, experts say: Should the US and leading European nations recognize Kosovo outside the UN, Russia may back independence for three renegade enclaves in Georgia and Moldova, which could embolden Serbs in Bosnia to join with Serbia. The scenario is a "nightmare," says a European diplomat in Belgrade.
"The new Russian track of assertiveness, arm-twisting, and influence-grabbing has changed the story," says Jacques Rupnik, a European expert at Sciences Po in Paris. "The EU was counting on Russia to compromise on Kosovo since Moscow had no reason to object. But they have objected, and for very little cost. Europe is divided on Russia and it will be on Kosovo."
How Russian resurgence affects EU
Russian maneuvering on Kosovo is just part of a new geopolitical game that Putin has opened in the past six to eight months in the European neighborhood – one seeking to restore Russia's traditional sense of being a great nation, taking a tougher line on Russia's sphere of influence, and ending what many Russians felt was national humiliation during the 1990s, as Moscow struggled to adjust to post-Soviet realities.
Many experts in Europe have been slow to acknowledge Russia's resurgence – and its divisive effects on Europe's attempts to achieve a common foreign policy. But that is changing, largely due to recent Russian political, economic, and security moves, including opposition to the proposed US missile shield, Russia's cyber attack on Estonia, Gazprom's control of gas to Europe, spy scandal disputes with Britain, Russian bomber violations of Norwegian airspace, Moscow's reticence to sanction Iran on uranium enrichment, and Russia's exploding of the largest-ever nonnuclear bomb last month.
"Europe's strategic partnership with Russia isn't working properly," says Thomas Gomart, an expert with the Paris-based IFRI. "It is clear more and more that Russia is the biggest issue for Europe in the next decade. Moscow is the new player in setting up a multipolar world weighing against the US. What we haven't answered is whether Russia is a partner or a threat."
American diplomats assert categorically that Moscow knows the proposed missile shield, which would be hosted in part by Poland and the Czech Republic, is actually designed for Iranian missile capability. But they say Putin continues to treat it as a threat to Russian security.