In a series of harsh criticisms of Putin’s recognition of the seceded Ukrainian Donbass, among the first to arrive was the one from Moldova, from pro-European President Maia Sandu. Logically and correctly, because why wouldn’t Moldova be the first in line for Russia to recognize its “Donbass” in Transnistria, which has been frozen for even longer, and immediately after that send its troops to “protect peace” there. What stands in the way of the Russian president, after the recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, to continue to recognize all other regions of the frozen conflict on the outskirts of Russia?
In anticipation of the response of the rest of the world to the Russian annexation of another large part of Ukraine, some important answers have already been given and they are more than important for the events in the Balkans. After Putin’s recognition of Donbass and sending of Russian troops to that region, Russia’s position on the international scene, as an advocate of firm compliance with international law, becomes unsustainable. Russia and its leader weighed in and concluded that they could give up that position, with which they have been moralizing on the international scene for decades, in order to achieve their much more important interest, which is full control over the territory once occupied by the Soviet Union.
By recognizing, and immediately afterwards by the military occupation of Donetsk and Lugansk, Russia formally left the framework of international law, violating all fundamental laws, which it has been frantically defending for years and decades. That is, that’s how it presented itself. From the UN Charter, through the Helsinki Final Act, to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s integrity, to the Minsk Protocol, “reaching” to the autonomy of the two rebel Ukrainian regions, not in any way to their independence and international recognition.
Donetsk and Lugansk will not become states by being recognized by the Kremlin. Except for Russia, no one else in the world will recognize them. Just as no one but Russia recognized the Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we do not count the recognition by Venezuela and a couple of Pacific micro-states. Donbass will remain a pocket around which Russia will fight the West, while the people will leave it, emigrate in search of peace and a normal life.
By entering Donbass, Russia ceases to be a lawyer on the international stage against Kosovo’s independence. It is possible that it will continue to try to do so, but its credibility for something like that will be zero. With its move towards the Ukrainian east, Putin also renounced that role in the international arena, again, guided only by his own and his government’s priorities. It is inconceivable that the Russian ambassador to the UN, at the first next session of the Security Council dedicated to the semi-annual report on Kosovo, would say anything against Kosovo’s independence and its international recognition, without causing laughter in the chamber. It is much more conceivable for Russia to recognize Kosovo as an independent state, following the same principle that it has applied to Donetsk and Lugansk.
Russia and Putin have greatly facilitated the path to the recognition of Kosovo by five EU members, which have not done that so far, by tearing apart another part of Ukraine after Crimea. Regardless of their internal reasons, Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus today have much less room for maneuver to resist pressure to recognize Kosovo than they did until yesterday. If new recognitions of Kosovo from the remaining members of the EU and NATO happen soon, Serbia will be able to thank only Vladimir Putin.
Belgrade lost its biggest and most influential lawyer for the policy of preserving territorial integrity on the international scene overnight. Not by its own will, but by the will of that lawyer, who revoked Belgrade’s power of attorney, taking over another “case” from which he expects real profit. Russia has so far charged Serbia many times the costs of its services, literally. For example, through the energy agreement from 2008, the takeover of NIS and oil fields in Serbia, or through the arrangement on the delivery of weapons and military equipment. Looking back, in the case of Serbia, Russia has invested only a crumb of its international authority, keeping the side of Serbia in relation to Kosovo, and in return it has received incomparably more than it could have expected without such representative engagement, primarily in the UN.
If there is anyone outside Russia who can look forward to the annexation of Donbass, it is the Kosovo Albanians and the government in Pristina. Their frustration that the building of their independent state stopped somewhere in the middle and got stuck there, stops overnight and opens hope that from now on it will be resolved much faster and in their favor. They can rightly say that one of their most powerful opponents is not a protector of international law, but on the contrary, its most brutal destroyer. From now on, the Russian vote against Kosovo’s independence will be just a passing echo that no one will pay attention to anymore, until it completely disappears.
Serbia has come to the situation that it needs to “repackage” its current strategy on Kosovo, because relying on Moscow and its influence in world forums can no longer be an option. First of all, because Russia will not be interested in that issue as much as it has been interested so far, it will not invest even a part of its diplomatic and political energy in it, because it is preoccupied with an incomparably more important issue. The loss of credibility and authority of Moscow on the international scene after the latest Ukrainian invasion is so great that playing the card of alliance with it on any issue means instant defeat and no reasonable government can afford that. Finally, solidarity with Russia in its Ukrainian operation would be a kamikaze move in international relations. Putin and Russia remained completely alone in their adventure; they did not receive even a restrained silence from China, but a clear support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which the head of Chinese diplomacy spoke about at the Munich Security Conference.
Belgrade will have to continue to look for its chance around Kosovo in the triangle with the European Union and the United States, without any expectation that it could get decisive support from Russia for its positions in any finale. Russia may be willing to provide such support, seeking more benefits for itself, but Serbia would have to reject it, otherwise it would work directly against its own interests. As of Monday, Russia is the most brutal destroyer of the international order based on rules, and any further alliance with it grows into complicity.