As Russian forces suddenly double in strength along its border with Ukraine, and Russians start talking about the “humanitarian disaster” in eastern Ukraine, concern is growing quickly about a possible impending Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.
It’s Kosovo all over again — they wish.
The Russians have never quite gotten over the NATO bombing of Serbia for its attempted ethnic cleansing of its neighbor Kosovo. And now they’re dead set on using Kosovo against us, as the putative explanation for why they’re about to gobble up yet another neighbor.
You’ll recall that the UN estimated some 850,000 ethnic Muslims had been forced out of Kosovo by Serbian forces.
The humanitarian crisis was a major rationale for the NATO strikes:
Those who were involved in the NATO airstrikes have stood by the decision to take such action. Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, said, “The appalling accounts of mass killing in Kosovo and the pictures of refugees fleeing Serb oppression for their lives makes it clear that this is a fight for justice over genocide.” On CBS’ Face the Nation Cohen claimed, “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing. … They may have been murdered.” Clinton, citing the same figure, spoke of “at least 100,000 (Kosovar Albanians) missing”. Later, Clinton said about Yugoslav elections, “they’re going to have to come to grips with what Mr. Milošević ordered in Kosovo. … They’re going to have to decide whether they support his leadership or not; whether they think it’s OK that all those tens of thousands of people were killed. …” In the same press conference, Clinton also claimed “NATO stopped deliberate, systematic efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide.” Clinton compared the events of Kosovo to the Holocaust. CNN reported, “Accusing Serbia of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo similar to the genocide of Jews in World War II, an impassioned President Clinton sought Tuesday to rally public support for his decision to send U.S. forces into combat against Yugoslavia, a prospect that seemed increasingly likely with the breakdown of a diplomatic peace effort.” Clinton’s State Department also claimed Serbian troops had committed genocide. The New York Times reported, “the Administration said evidence of ‘genocide’ by Serbian forces was growing to include ‘abhorrent and criminal action’ on a vast scale. The language was the State Department’s strongest yet in denouncing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević.” The State Department also gave the highest estimate of dead Albanians. In May 1996, Defense Secretary William Cohen suggested that there might be up to 100,000 Albanian fatalities.” However, five months after the conclusion of NATO bombing, only 2,108 bodies were found, with a total estimate not exceeding eleven thousand.
It’s been clear from Day One that the Russians have been attempting to play the Kosovo card throughout their invasion and annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, and their ongoing effort to destabilize, and perhaps now invade, eastern Ukraine. In addition to denying the fact that it has sent forces into Ukraine to help and be the rebels, the Russians have also been playing up the “humanitarian crisis,” as a possible future rationale for further escalation.
And now what do we see?
2. The sudden doubling of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, just as they did right before invading and annexing Crimea.
3. The UN, citing Russian figures, claiming that 850,000 Ukrainians have fled across the Russian border.
The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, said Tuesday that the Russian authorities estimate that around 730,000 Ukrainians have sought sanctuary in Russia this year under a visa-free travel program.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the numbers are true, and that it’s the Russian-created-backed-and-orchestrated civil war that’s forcing people to flee (and when your only options are to flee into the fighting or away from the fighting, and “away” just happens to be the Russian border, you flee to the Russian border rather than die).
4. The Russians showing increasing “concern” about the “humanitarian crisis.”
“On a human scale, the situation in the east — particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk — is disastrous. Today, with all certainty, there’s a need to speak about a true war,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Tuesday.
The problem all along has been the lack of a significant geopolitical downside for Russia in all of this.
Yes, Russia needs to worry about its ability to invade and occupy a large land area that isn’t nearly as friendly to it as Crimea was. I’m not suggesting that there is no cost to Russia invading eastern Ukraine. I’m suggesting that it’s not entirely clear the West can, or is willing to, put a sufficient price tag on a Russian invasion in order to make it not worth the cost for Russia to go ahead anyway (or for Russia to at least not care what the Western reaction is).
Now, there is also the matter of that Malaysia Airlines flight the Russian’s buddies shot down in Ukraine, killing nearly 300 innocent people, and using Russian-supplied missiles to do so. That didn’t go over too well with Europe, America or most of the world. Nor did the world react too kindly to Russia’s bizarre response to the incident, claiming that it was really the Ukrainian government that shot the plane down (while others argued that the plane was a set-up, filled with already-dead bodies), and then letting it stooges in Ukraine initially deny international access to the crash site or the bodies of the dead.
The Malaysia Airlines flight may not have been the straw that broke the European camel’s back, but it certainly accelerated movement towards an eventual, possible, breaking point at which Europe switches from relative inaction to serious action.
But let’s not blame this entirely on Europe (western Europe to be exact — eastern Europe has been far more forthright about the need to challenge Russia head-on). It’s not entirely clear what America is willing to, or can, do either. The Obama administration, reflecting overall US public opinion, doesn’t need another expensive military conflict after Afghanistan and Iraq both broke the bank, in addition to killing thousands of US troops and creating a power vacuum that Al-Qaeda-aligned militants (ISIS) are now filling in Iraq.
And that’s why you don’t get involved in trillion dollar wars of convenience unless you have a pretty darn good reason. Call it the Rainy Day Fund of War-making (the same principle applies to tax cuts during budget surpluses). You keep your powder, your money, and your men dry until you actually need them, otherwise they might just not be there when a righteous casus belli ultimately rears its head.