Why Putin Keeps Talking About Kosovo

For the Kremlin, NATO’s 1999 war against Serbia is the West’s original sin—and a humiliating affront that Russia must avenge.

By , an academic at the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies
Serb residents hold a poster portraiting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a ceremony marking a historic battle  at  Gazimestan, near Pristina on June 28, 2009. The ceremony marked the anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where the Serbian army was defeated by the Ottoman Empire.
Serb residents hold a poster portraiting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a ceremony marking a historic battle at Gazimestan, near Pristina on June 28, 2009. The ceremony marked the anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where the Serbian army was defeated by the Ottoman Empire.
Serb residents hold a poster portraiting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a ceremony marking a historic battle at Gazimestan, near Pristina on June 28, 2009. The ceremony marked the anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where the Serbian army was defeated by the Ottoman Empire. Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

In the early hours of Feb. 24, the Kremlin launched a new full-scale war in the heart of Europe. Shaky video footage from the outskirts of Ukrainian cities provides snapshots of a chaotic scene: blankets strewn across hard bunker floors, expletive-laden declarations of epic heroism, children’s hysterical cries.

In the face of such horror, it is natural to ascribe these crimes to a madman, to a leader entirely divorced from reality. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s historically unhinged pre-invasion speech, in which he premised his desire to resurrect the Soviet Union on the claim that Vladimir Lenin invented Ukraine, does little to contradict that assessment—at least at first glance.

History has long been Putin’s war language, his way of analogizing and justifying Russia’s modern-day aggressions within past glories and humiliations. The Russian government’s lies that its current violence against the Ukrainian people is actually just a special operation to “de-Nazify” Ukraine simply extends the pro-Kremlin argument that Nazis came to power in Kyiv after the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014.

In the early hours of Feb. 24, the Kremlin launched a new full-scale war in the heart of Europe. Shaky video footage from the outskirts of Ukrainian cities provides snapshots of a chaotic scene: blankets strewn across hard bunker floors, expletive-laden declarations of epic heroism, children’s hysterical cries.

In the face of such horror, it is natural to ascribe these crimes to a madman, to a leader entirely divorced from reality. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s historically unhinged pre-invasion speech, in which he premised his desire to resurrect the Soviet Union on the claim that Vladimir Lenin invented Ukraine, does little to contradict that assessment—at least at first glance.

History has long been Putin’s war language, his way of analogizing and justifying Russia’s modern-day aggressions within past glories and humiliations. The Russian government’s lies that its current violence against the Ukrainian people is actually just a special operation to “de-Nazify” Ukraine simply extends the pro-Kremlin argument that Nazis came to power in Kyiv after the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014.

It is difficult to accept that even the Kremlin believes its propaganda that Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a Nazi. For a more explanatory narrative, one that exhibits some form of logic in the Kremlin’s thinking, it is more helpful to examine another much-used historical analogy for Russia’s war on Ukraine: Kosovo and the 1999 NATO bombing of then-Yugoslavia (today’s Serbia and Montenegro).


Protecting the local population from genocide, stopping an out-of-control nationalist government, affirming human rights, preventing atrocities worthy of the Nazis: These were core messages in Putin’s declaration-of-war address. They also self-consciously mirror the justifications given by NATO leaders for bombing Yugoslavia more than two decades ago.

This is no coincidence. In Putin’s Feb. 21 address, in which he announced Russia’s recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, Putin referenced the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and support for Kosovo as a touchpoint and justification. In his view, it seems, NATO fabricated a fake genocide in Kosovo to legitimize its intervention; now he was just doing the same. This was not only about providing precedent but also about sending a message: If the West can redraw borders for Kosovo, then we can redraw borders for the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine.

This address followed on from the stage-managed spectacle of a Security Council meeting where ministers were invited to pledge their support for recognizing the two republics’ independence. In their speeches, the chairwoman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, and the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, also invoked the NATO bombing as justification and precedent for Russia’s moves to protect the population of the Donbass from a fictitious genocide.

While there is an element of trolling to these comparisons, such statements are not just whataboutism. Kremlin analogies comparing eastern Ukraine to Kosovo illustrate that the Russian government’s aim in attacking Ukraine is to reinstate the Cold War security architecture, so that the West no longer has the exclusive power to redraw borders and change regimes. It is also about destroying the West’s ideational supremacy—the appeal of its values to other countries—by contending it is based on little more than self-interest and profit-making.


Russia’s understanding of the 78-day NATO war against Serbia is quite different from that of many Western countries, which see it as a humanitarian intervention that prevented, or was even a response to, genocide. Western accounts place little emphasis on the lack of United Nations Security Council approval for the strikes or on the loss of civilian lives.

If you look at the most popular history portal on the Russian internet, which is Kremlin-funded, you will read that the crisis in Kosovo was not caused by the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic deliberately stirring up nationalist tensions or ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians and others. Instead, according to this site, it was caused by the United States, with the support of NATO and some European Union countries, which were exploiting Russia’s post-Soviet weakness and destroying its longtime ally, Serbia. Russia has long seen the Balkans as falling within its sphere of influence, and its fraternal relations with Serbia have historically been crucial to its exercise of power in this region.

Even at the time, contemporary Western and Russian media depicted very different images of the war in Kosovo. The West’s support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was fighting against Yugoslav forces for Kosovar autonomy from Serbia, led even democratically minded Russian opposition lawmakers to vehemently criticize Western actions in the Balkans. This sentiment grew stronger after NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, which forced Milosevic to negotiate and cede Kosovo, leaving many Serb civilians to flee the area.

Although Russia contributed to an international effort to send peacekeepers to Kosovo, it openly supported the Yugoslav forces there and even stormed Pristina airport, preventing NATO planes from landing. Tactically pointless, this act was rich in symbolism, conveying both Russia’s disagreement with NATO policy and a renewed desire to assert its interests. It also signaled a premature readiness to risk conflagration for the sake of national pride, with NATO and Russian forces avoiding confrontation thanks only to the de-escalatory intervention of a British general.

In some respects, it mirrored the now much-vaunted Primakov U-turn, when in March 1999 Russia’s then-Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov ordered his flight to turn back to Moscow en route to Washington after learning that NATO was beginning airstrikes on Yugoslavia. Russia perceived NATO’s actions as a deliberate humiliation and a denial of Russian status in the region and beyond.

Kremlin analogies comparing eastern Ukraine to Kosovo illustrate that the Russian government’s aim in attacking Ukraine is to reinstate the Cold War security architecture.

This view has become more entrenched over the last 23 years, with Putin depicting the war as an illegal and illegitimate act by NATO that deliberately humiliated Russia. Yugoslavia has been a constant reference point in Putin’s and Lavrov’s speeches, especially in relation to Ukraine; for example, during the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014 that overthrew Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt and nepotistic Russian ally, Putin focused on Yugoslavia. He painted the NATO bombing, and later U.S. support for the Bulldozer Revolution that overthrew Milosevic, as a precursor of Ukraine’s Euromaidan—framing Yugoslavia as the first color revolution. Pro-Russian federal television channels referenced it throughout 2014, featuring footage of the bombing of Belgrade and other cities to expose the supposed hypocrisy of Western criticism of Russian actions. Pro-Russian actors and media today are also sharing similar messages and footage from that time, including in Serbia itself.

Pro-Russian voices routinely point to Western hypocrisy in supporting and facilitating Kosovo’s independence but condemning the (ostensible) self-determination of Crimeans, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians. However, the justification under international law to support Kosovo’s secession from Serbia would certainly not apply to Crimea and would also struggle to be applied to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Distracting from Russia’s own contravention of international norms, Putin responded to Western criticism of the annexation of Crimea by invoking Western disregard for international law when they bombed Belgrade or intervened in Kosovo. In a 2016 speech at the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin argued: “Bombing Belgrade was clearly an intervention outside the norms and rules of international law. … The United States did it unilaterally. You spoke about Crimea. What about Crimea? [It is nothing compared to] what you did in Yugoslavia.”

Putin uses supposed Western hypocrisy to excuse his own disregard for international law.

Through comments like these, Putin is not just trying to antagonize the West—he is also trying to render events in the Balkans an appropriate and relevant historical frame through which to interpret current Western actions and criticism of Russia. In so doing, he uses supposed Western hypocrisy to excuse his own disregard for international law, rendering it a matter of principle, parity, and pride that Russia should also be able to ignore the rules.

At Valdai in 2017, the Russian president bemoaned how the West treated post-Soviet Russia, spurning its openness and trust as it “completely ignored our national interests … for example in the bombing of Yugoslavia and Belgrade, sending troops to Iraq, and so on. And it is clear why: They looked at the state of our nuclear complex, our Armed Forces, our economy. Then international law looked unnecessary.”

This interpretation regards Yugoslavia as the pivotal point in the degradation of Russia’s relations with the West—as the place, in Putin’s words, “where it all began.” At the Security Council meeting on Feb. 21, Lavrov cited NATO support for Kosovo then as a reason to disregard Western criticisms of Russia now. In 2014, speaking at the Seliger youth forum, he cited Yugoslavia as a war“in violation of all conceivable norms and responsibilities.” Seen through this grievance-filled lens of a once-fallen but resurrected superpower, Russia’s strikes on Ukraine today should be understood as the end result—a replaying of Kosovo, but with Russia as the victor, the one powerful enough to transgress the norms, not the West.

If Kosovo was the nadir of Russian weakness, in the invasion of Ukraine, we are now witnessing its inversion. In Russian, the verb zerkalit’ means to imitate or copy someone, as in a mirror, and it describes how the Kremlin wants to depict its war against Ukraine. The Kremlin’s incessant claims of genocide in the Donbass and its creation of a refugee crisis there by inviting and bribing Donbass citizens to come to Russia feel like obvious efforts to echo Western actions in Kosovo. This mirroring can also be seen in the Kremlin’s military tactics, with strikes across Ukraine on infrastructure, civilian, and military targets, just as during NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

The world has seen Russian ground forces moving into the Donbass to supposedly avert risk of genocide and the use of so-called peacekeepers. The Kremlin also clearly wants to remove the Zelensky government in Kyiv, just as, in its view, the West overthrew Milosevic. In chasing that goal, Russia has already exceeded NATO actions in Yugoslavia.

The Kremlin has long indulged and incited the collective national trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union to present itself as the avenger of past humiliations. By invoking Kosovo in Ukraine, Russia is demonstrating (to itself most of all) that it has returned to great-power status and intends to carry out an explicit undoing of the post-Cold War security architecture, crossing the threshold into a different world order, rather than simply straining or revising the current rules.

If, for Putin, Yugoslavia was the first color revolution, then Ukraine could be seen as a Russian bleach revolution, as it tries to remove the color from Ukraine with little regard to the damage the process causes to that country’s people or social fabric.


Seen through the prism of Kosovo and Russian grievances, an invasion that at first seemed entirely irrational begins to make more sense. By unleashing this war on Ukraine, Russia is demonstrating status parity with the West and calling a bluff on the latter’s lack of courage, and therefore power. Although Russia’s 2021 National Security Strategy detailed at length the Kremlin’s belief that the United States and the wider West are decadent powers—self-indulgent and in moral and cultural decline—it was not entirely clear until the invasion that Putin was so confident of Western cowardice he would act this brazenly.

In the first 24 hours following the invasion, the Western reaction was underwhelming. Since then,  the West has taken drastic action, leveling sanctions against Russia’s Central Bank, removing most Russian banks from SWIFT, and offering Ukraine arms for its defense. However, it is hard to see how this will make much difference if these countries do not show Putin they are willing to implement measures that come at real cost to their own economic interests, including a Marshall Plan and the seizure of Kremlin-linked assets and their transfer to the Ukrainian resistance.

Absent such measures, they would prove Putin’s historical analogy to be at least partly correct, with the West’s moral weakness now matching Russia’s economic and political weakness during the war in Kosovo.

 

Editor’s Note: Some links in this article may appear broken due to cyberattacks on Russian websites.

Jade McGlynn is an academic at the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies specializing in Russian memory politics and the author of the forthcoming book The Kremlin’s Memory Makers. Twitter: @DrJadeMcGlynn

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