Two thousand and eight is the year of the Rat, but 2007 was the year of Fun when it came to Russia and the West. Oh, how we laughed! Daily new threats were hurled, dark comparisons made, and old treaties shredded and replaced with new weapons programs. In the biggest yuck of all, Ed Lucas got a book deal.
At times it was hard to tell what was going on. Putin compared Bush to Hitler; everyone compared Putin to Stalin. But still they went fishing. In the West, the year began in a haze of Litvinenko hysteria and ended with a sober reconsideration of Putin, Time magazine's Person of the Year. In Russia, the year began with talk of targeting EU nations with mid-range nukes and ended with the nomination of Dmitry Medvedev, the modernizing relatively pro-western teddy bear among Putin's possible successors. Between the bookends there were a lot of sparks around America's plans for missile defense stations in Europe, the Kremlin's tightening control at home and a return to a more muscular foreign policy, Western support for an independent Kosovo, Russia's nuclear cooperation with and arms sales to Iran, American meddling in Russia's near abroad, Russian meddling in its own near abroad, the list goes on.
If things seem calmer on the new cold war front than they did six months ago, it's temporary. All of the 2007 flash points are still flashing, most of them bigger and brighter, and the trend lines haven't changed. Missile defenses in Europe are still on the boards. So is NATO expansion. Most important, a showdown over Kosovo is around the corner. The Kremlin set the tone on its end when it assigned Dmitry Rogozin to the post of NATO ambassador, the Russian equivalent of Bush sending John Bolton to the UN.
Everything is in place for a memorable and exciting year of diplomatic clashes between the world's biggest nuclear powers. Let the new cold war games begin!
The main event. It's gonna happen this year and it's gonna get heavy. If 2007 was the year of missile defense mayhem, 2008 is the year of the Kosovo clusterfuck. Sometime in the next six months, Albania Jr. is going to stand up in a Borat-tailored suit, quote Thomas Jefferson, and declare itself an independent statelet with an economy dependent on heroin smuggling, human trafficking, Scandinavian foreign ministries, and a 24-hour Western Union office. The West will beam with nervous pride and support their new infant ally at the UN. At which point, Pandora, meet Pristina. What happens after the inevitable clash followed by deadlock in the Security Council is anyone's guess, but you can likely forget about this summer's Putin-Bush Siberian fishing vacation farewell tour.
It's hard not to conclude that the whole thing is a dangerous and unnecessary Western power play. In the long-running negotiations you've never heard about, Belgrade has agreed to give Pristina what amounts to de facto sovereignty, including the right to field its own Olympic teams. The only thing Belgrade won't grant Kosovo is the right to set an independent foreign policy. But the West is about to give it to them, even though it risks turning a Russia-West flashpoint into a fire. Which may just be the point. There appears to be a hardcore faction of new cold warriors salivating at the chance to use Kosovo to push relations with Russia to a breaking point. Speaking of an "inevitable confrontation with Russia," Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington recently argued that military force may be needed if Serbia or anyone else acts "irrationally" in response to Kosovo's declaration of independence, which could come within weeks or even days. The irony of all this is that if there's one shit hole on earth not worth risking a flare-up over, it's Kosovo.
European Missile Defense
Kosovo will get the headlines in early to mid-2008, but this one ain't going anywhere. The Democrats managed to slash funding for European missile defense in the next budget, but its full steam ahead until '09, when a potential Democratic president will have to pry the program from the Pentagon's dead cold fingers. Look for deals to get signed with Prague and Warsaw by spring so they can break ground and get building before an Obama or Clinton administration gets any funny ideas about pulling the plug.