On the Language of Russian foreign policy

Afterword for the essay "Verbal Strategies from Kosovo to Crimea'', VIP No.1,  2018.published by FSD, July 29, 2018


Can the declaration of independence by Kosovo be considered legitimate?

Was Crimea’s declaration of independence legitimate and legal (as is the view in Russia)?

These are some of the questions tackled in this intriguing political essay VERBAL STRATEGIES FROM KOSOVO TO CRIMEA by Thomas Hodson in a time when a ruthless battle of Cold War proportions for legitimacy in foreign policy is being waged.

The author is radical in his critical analysis of Russian interpretation of international law, in which he denies Russia the right to even interpret international law in the cases of Kosovo and Crimea, regardless of how questionable those interpretations might be.
                                                                                                                                                                                        Written by uka Jovanović

The essay itself doesn’t delve into the question of Kosovo nearly as much, so in this context it might be of use to recall what preceded the secession of Kosovo and to, with that knowledge in mind, look back on the circumstances under which Crimea had been absorbed into Russia.


Even though Pristina unilaterally proclaimed Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in February 2008, the interpretation of that event and the discussions around it often look back on 1999; the year in which NATO intervened in the, up to that point, internal struggle between Belgrade and the Kosovar Albanians in the old Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, where the Kosovar Albanians have, after having been stripped of their political rights by Slobodan Milosevic, started an armed revolt for the separation from Serbia and the forming of their own state.

Spurred by the battle of Milosevic’s regime with the Albanians from Kosovo, NATO member states have tried, initially, to resolve this conflict politically – by focusing their efforts towards the de-escalation of violence and bringing Belgrade and representatives of the Kosovar Albanians to the negotiating table. These efforts have not been fruitful. Faced with a diplomatic fiasco, NATO, as it was pointed out, was not prepared to all this conflict to become a reprise of the slaughterhouse from Bosnia and Herzegovina during the collapse of the old SFRY. Even though the then existing legal framework didn’t provide it with many options, in the so-called dilemma between law and principles NATO has, as it was cited later, opted for the latter, bombs and all, taking the view by doing this they were defending the law and the new international order that was formed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So it was that the Alliance, which was conceived as a  defensive pact, found itself protecting its principles through the use of military force in an action which wasn’t authorized by the United Nations.

After a seventy-eight-day long bombing campaign, the Treaty from Kumanovo had been signed. This treaty was a de facto capitulation of Milosevic and it was on the basis of this Treaty that the Serbian police and military forces have been withdrawn from Kosovo.

The UNSC Resolution 1244, and the status negotiations that followed were an attempt on the part of the international community to legally frame this new state of affairs in the field.

After the Kosovo conflict, during which the Serbian armed forces have committed crimes against civilians (which have been verified by at least one conviction before the Hague Tribunal, which was founded by the UN), the international, especially Western, public outright rejected the notion that Belgrade (from which these acts were planned and coordinated, and the committed crimes later omitted or outright covered up) should continue to politically represent the victims of these atrocities, if they haven’t already seriously brought it into question after the constitutional reforms of SR of Serbia stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. 

Political leaders in Belgrade could not, and still cannot, accept this new approach and reality, which, at least in part is what influenced Pristina to unilaterally proclaim Kosovo’s independence – with all the legal perplexities that followed such an act, but which have, shortly after, been clarified by a verdict before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).


The annexation of Crimea had a considerably different narrative altogether!

As was the case with Kosovo, for a better understanding of this event we need to look back on events that preceded it, most notably the Majdan Square protests in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, which was, above all else, an attempt to defend the legacy of the Orange Revolution. These protests broke out because of President Viktor Yanukovych’s political distancing from the EU and his signing of a series of treaties with Russia which were perceived by the Ukrainian public as a renouncement of Ukraine’s European future, which was why the Orange Revolution broke out in the first place. 

After a failed attempt to forcefully disperse the protests and the disarray that followed them, Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. He ran straight to Russia from where, in a gesture which was very hard not to perceive as treasonous, called upon the Russian armed forces to intervene in Ukraine in order to protect the political rights and liberties of Ukrainian citizens.

Shortly afterward, events were rapidly set into motion. Unidentified military forces have occupied the Crimean peninsula in a blitzkrieg action. While these military operations were underway Russia strenuously denied that these unmarked military forces were in fact part of the Russian army! (It was at a much later point that Putin, in an interview which he gave to a Russian television, admitted that these forces were in fact part of the Russian army).

After the establishment of foreign military control over the peninsula, “politically emancipated” Russians from the Crimea organized, under the supervision of an unidentified occupying force, a referendum on the secession from Ukraine. In their justification of this move they cited their right to self-determination and their disagreements with Kiev’s policies after the Majdan protests, fretting that they might escalate into violence against Ukrainian citizens of Russian descent.

In an unsurprising fashion, the motion to secede from Ukraine was adopted practically by acclamation.  

Not a single EU member state, or any international organization for that matter, ever acknowledged the validity of this referendum – possibly because it is illusory to talk about free will on the citizens part at a time when they were surrounded by tanks.

After this referendum, the legitimacy of which was universally denied, political representatives of the peninsula, for whom it wasn’t particularly clear who they were representing since it is not known that they were elected to this position by anyone (at a time in which the peninsula was occupied by a then-unidentified military force), went to Moscow where they “asked” to join the Russian Federation. The decision to accept this “request” was made unanimously.

To this day this act hasn’t been recognized by any country in the world and the United Nations condemned it as an annexation that goes against the spirit on which international relations were based on since that organization was founded.


To the Serbian readership Hodson’s essay is of particular interest as it showcases Russian positions pertaining to the so-called Crimea and Kosovo question from the perspective of international law – which is of great importance due to the year-long “internal dialogue” on Kosovo which is being had in Serbia and because of the high hopes some participants put in Russia. The guiding thought of these hopes is that the Kosovo question should be “frozen” in order to wait out an aftermath that is in Serbia’s favor, with the help and intervention of the Russians. However, the advocates of the “freezing of the Kosovo question” might find Hodson’s ascertainment from this essay that Russia favored a state of “frozen conflict” in Ukraine and Donbas because, as Hodson writes, it “forever stymies Ukraine’s European ambitions” indicative.

In summary, after all the points we’ve mentioned with regards to this essay, it is difficult to maintain the position that the cases of Kosovo and Crimea are identical.

In Kosovo’s case, excessive use of force (characterized by some authors as ethnic cleansing, while others, tendentiously, claimed it was genocide) was already widely critiqued even before the bombing campaign and Albanian exodus only escalated as the bombs started to fall.

In the Crimea, however, there were no armed conflicts before the arrival of the Russian army on the peninsula (bearing none of its coat of arms or flags as it did so).

Furthermore, a consensus of all Alliance member states was needed before NATO could intervene in Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

In Ukraine’s case, as far as is known, the Russian Duma never officially sanctioned the deployment of the Russian army to Crimea and that, as he explained already in the previously mentioned interview, the “little green men” were sent to Crimea by Putin personally. 

Finally, while the military involvement of NATO was aimed towards stopping of a conflict well under way, which involved a regime that loaded its citizens in cold storage units and threw them in mass graves, the actions of Russia were primarily focused on territorial gains at the expense of a country that wrested away from its political control.

Many world countries recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence, while no small a number of them, some which are EU member states, have not yet done so. The absorption of Crimea into Russia, on the other hand, was not recognized by anyone.

The legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence was confirmed before the ICJ (before which Serbia itself brought up the issue), while the United Nations have concluded in a Resolution of the UN General Assembly that Russia is an occupying power in Ukraine.

The differences are so stark that all claims of commonality of these cases need to be rejected and its propagators (those from Russia as well as those outside of it) proclaimed impartiality must be brought into question.

There are two possible reasons behind these claims:

According to the first one, the propagators of the commonality between Kosovo and Crimea (despite their public outcry in which they criticize the conduct of the West in Kosovo and its support for the separatist aspirations of the Kosovar Albanians) believe that the urge of Albanians to secede from Yugoslavia was justifiable after all, and they wish to present the situation in Crimea prior to the invasion in the same vein, thus making the separation of Crimea from Ukraine and it’s absorbing not just justifiable but rightful as well; they are, therefore, well aware that there is absolutely no justification for the annexation. 

The second, and it seems more likely explanation, is that the advocates of the Kosovo-Crimea analogy care little for legitimacy or laws, and view international relations as a mere relations of power – in which they would gladly acknowledge the West’s right to “take” Kosovo from Serbia if they acknowledged Russia’s right to take Crimea from Ukraine.

Up to this point, there was no politician in the West ready to dignify such a worldview with any consideration whatsoever.  

As long as that remains the case there is hope that the issues surrounding Kosovo and Crimea will be resolved in a way which will guarantee common prosperity and security for all parties involved.

Should that change Kosovo and Crimea will be the least of our problems.