Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. That campaign ended Serbia’s control over the province, and paved the way for its official separation from Serbia in 2008. There has been a fair amount of discussion about the Kosovo “precedent” (or lack thereof) in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, especially because Russia has opportunistically decided to embrace the “precedent” that it warned against in the past. It’s true that the two cases don’t have that much in common. The more important point is that Russia would have been wrong to separate Crimea from Ukraine even if the two cases were more alike, just as Western governments were wrong to intervene and wrong to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
Nonetheless, it’s also true that Kosovo has created something of a precedent for other governments to exploit if they choose. The example set by the Kosovo war and the later recognition of Kosovo’s independence is simply this: a state or group of states can illegally force a weaker one to relinquish control over part of its own territory in response to purely internal affairs, and then separate that territory from the rest of the country against the wishes of its government. Russia is now throwing this in the face of Western governments, just as it did in 2008, partly because it sees an opportunity for belated payback for intervening in Kosovo in the first place, and partly because it finds the opportunity to rail against double standards–while indulging in the same–too tempting to ignore. For all of the recent concern for the survival of a “rules-based” international order, the intervention in Kosovo did as much damage to it as anything that has happened in Ukraine in the last month.
The Kosovo intervention was one of the most egregious examples of Western double standards on international law and sovereignty of the last twenty-five years, and it was only a matter of time and circumstances before other governments would make use of it to justify their own interference in the internal affairs of other states. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia would not have seized and annexed Crimea if the Kosovo intervention had never happened. Russia acted for its own reasons in response to a specific series of events, so it’s entirely possible that it would have acted the same way no matter what NATO did or didn’t do elsewhere. Even so, the war fifteen years ago made such a mockery of Western commitment to international law that it certainly made this sort of illegal behavior more difficult to discourage and gave other major powers a ready-made excuse for their own wrongdoing. The fact that NATO waged that illegal war also gave Russia new reason to be alarmed by NATO expansion and to be more suspicious of Western intentions and goals, and these are clearly important factors in current Russian decision-making as it relates to Ukraine.
The danger of setting precedents is that the government that creates one doesn’t get to control who chooses to take advantage of it or how. As we all know, people can and do invoke precedents for unjustifiable actions with the flimsiest of arguments, but simply by having a previous example to fall back on usually lends a bad argument more weight than it would have otherwise. Just as the U.S. and NATO can’t stop other governments from invoking Kosovo to justify their illegal actions, Russia has no say in who might invoke their action in Crimea in the future in ways that they didn’t envision or approve. Those that choose to use the Kosovo “precedent” for their own purposes will probably come to regret it later.