Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs


In his wide-ranging speech announcing the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin had some choice words for the West: If you don’t like what Russia did in Crimea, you only have yourselves to blame — on the basis of the precedent in Kosovo in 1999.kosovoRussia Flag Icon

Though the officially translated remarks smooth over Putin’s salty language, it appears he used the slang term ‘всех нагнули,’ which, as Masha Gessen describes in Slate, is fairly graphic:

“It was our Western partners who created the precedent; they did it themselves, with their own hands, as it were, in a situation that was totally analogous to the Crimean situation, by recognizing Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as legitimate,” said Putin. And then, as he cited American statements on Kosovo, he got more and more worked up until he said, “They wrote it themselves. They spread this all over the world. They screwed everybody—and now they are outraged!” (The Kremlin’s official translators, who are forever civilizing the Russian president’s speech, translated this sentence as “They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree, and now they are outraged!” The expression Putin used, however, was “vsekh nagnuli,” street slang for having had nonconsensual anal sex with everybody, rather than for having everybody agree.)

Gessen, in an otherwise fabulous essay that starts with her own days as a war reporter in the late 1990s in Serbia and Kosovo, retells the story of the Primakov loop — a moment that Gessen argues represents a key pivot point in US-Russian relations, when the NATO governments essentially left Russia out of the loop with regarding its campaign against what was then still Yugoslavia and the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Ironically, even as the 1999 Kosovo precedent has increasingly become a flash point in the current war of words between Moscow and Washington, Serbians went to the polls on the same day as the Crimea referendum. They elected a majority government under  center-right Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vučić, a government that will be firmly focused on accession to the European Union, which has dangled the economic incentives of EU membership to advance a political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

Nonetheless, to understand the Putin doctrine of the 2010s, it’s worth revisiting the origins of the Primakov doctrine of the 1990s, which defined US-Russian relations and European-Russian relations in the same ‘zero-sum game’ terms.

Yevgeny Primakov is one of the more fascinating figures to emerge out of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.  

Born in 1929, just 12 years after the Russian revolution and the rise of Bolshevism, Primakov was a fairly minor official in the Soviet era until 1989 and 1990, when he became an increasingly important figure in the final two years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency. He essentially guided Russian policy on the Gulf War, and he developed close ties to Saddam Hussein that would later give him credibility as Russia’s envoy two decades later over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.


After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Primakov (pictured above, right, in 2009 with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger) became the director of SVR, the successor to the KGB’s external intelligence unit — essentially the CIA of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin brought Primakov into his administration as foreign minister in January 1996, at the nadir of his administration.

Primakov was one of Russia’s more formidable diplomats in the 1990s — he was significantly less enthusiastic about the West than Yeltsin and many of Yeltsin’s advisers, but he was equally enthusiastic about multilateralism in international affairs.  Yeltsin appointed him as prime minister in September 1998, a position he held for just eight months. But those eight months coincided with NATO’s military action in Kosovo — Primakov in March 1999 was on a flight to Wsahington to discuss the Balkans when NATO started its bombing campaign against Serbia.  Primakov immediately ordered the airplane to turn around and fly back to Moscow.

What characterized the Primakov doctrine? Resistance to the idea of a US-led unipolar world order, active resistance to US foreign policy goals (including NATO expansion) and attempts to balance US power with Russian alliances with China, India and the Middle East.

In his first two terms as president, Putin backed away from a confrontational foreign policy because, as Russian journalist Igor Torbakov argued a decade ago, Russia simply wasn’t powerful enough to pull it off:

It turned out, however, that the Primakov policy principles contained substantial flaws. Rising anti-Western rhetoric, combined with Moscow’s diminished influence in world affairs, served to isolate Russia. Hence, the urgent need to introduce necessary correctives.

If that sounds very familiar, it’s because it’s the foreign policy that Putin’s third presidential term has embodied. Though Russia’s economy doesn’t have quite the power that it had in the mid-2000s when global energy prices were higher, Putin obviously believes that Russia is now strong enough to flex its foreign policy muscles.

Primakov, with an ever-growing power base and a more stridently nationalist profile, fell out with Yeltsin, who replaced Primakov with the liberal Sergei Stepashin shortly thereafter. Stepashin, however, lasted just three months, and Yeltsin appointed Putin as his final prime minister — just four months later, Putin became acting president upon Yeltsin’s surprise resignation on New Year’s Day 2000.

Meanwhile, with the support of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and other leaders, Primakov formed the Fatherland-All Russia (Отечество – Вся Россия) bloc in 1998 with an eye to the 1999 parliamentary elections and the following 2000 presidential election. A year later, Putin and his allies formed Unity (Единство, ‘Yedinstvo’). The competition marked the last time that two such powerful blocs of political elites openly vied for political control of Russia.

Primakov, as it turned out, was no match for Putin. In March 2000, Putin won the first of his three terms as Russia’s president, having effectively extinguished the more nationalist Primakov alternative, which in 2000 posed the greatest challenge to Putin’s ascendancy.

In 2002, after Putin had solidified his grasp on the country, the two factions merged into United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я), the party that has controlled Russia under Putin ever since.

Back in 1998 and early 1999, though, when Primakov looked like Yeltsin’s heir apparent (and no one had even heard of Putin), you could already sense the growing nationalism that would ultimately come to define the more aggressive Putin era — in vast contrast to the days when Russia’s president wandered the streets of Washington, DC, drunk in his underwear and looking for a slice of pizza.

Primakov, since the early 2000s, has been a loyal Putin ally, and served as Putin’s high-profile representative in 2003 to Iraq. He surfaces from time to time as an elder statesman of sorts. Earlier this month, for example, Primakov blamed Ukraine’s unrest on fascist nationalists — it’s a point that the US and other Western governments have dismissed as Russian propaganda, but there are, in fact, plenty of far-right nationalists represented in the interim Ukrainian government.

Fast-forward to the current crisis.

Though Putin began his presidency in direct opposition to Primakov, you can draw a line between Russia’s isolation over Serbia and Kosovo at the height of Primakov’s power to Russia’s new aggressiveness. The Putin doctrine, to the extent it exists, is really just the Primakov doctrine of the 1990s on steroids — and with quite a bit of resentment of Western ‘всех нагнули’ thrown in.

Dan Drezner, writing earlier this week in the Guardian, dismisses the Kosovo analogy as a false equivalence:

In Kosovo, NATO’s actions left a de facto independent state. Nevertheless, Kosovo took its route to independence after nearly a decade of frustrating negotiations that tried to accommodate Serbian and Russian interests.

The Crimean referendum, mind you, was planned less than two weeks after Russia seized control of the region. Stepping back, the big difference between Kosovo and Crimea is that the US only took action after giving diplomacy numerous chances. (Today, the sanctions are coming.) Russia, on the other hand, has chosen to occupy first and negotiate later. Cynics might argue that the outcomes have been the same. But process matters in foreign policy, and Russia’s process has been a shambles.

It doesn’t help his case, however, when longtime Western allies like Gorbachev are downplaying Russia’s move into Crimea as merely correcting a ‘historical mistake’:

“While Crimea had previously been joined to Ukraine based on the Soviet laws, which means [Communist] party laws, without asking the people, now the people themselves have decided to correct that mistake,” Gorbachev said on Monday, Interfax reported. “This should be celebrated, not sanctioned,” he said.

Most damning of all to the standard Western case dismissing the Kosovo-Crimea link are comments like these from former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a longtime Putin ally, who also helped orchestrate the 1999 NATO action:

“Of course the current proceedings in the Crimea are a violation of international law. But you have to know why I am a little hesitant to start pointing fingers at the moment. That is because I did it myself. . .when we were dealing with the developments in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — the Kosovo War — we sent our Tornado planes and –- together with NATO –- bombed a sovereign country without a resolution by the United Nations Security Council. Kosovo was a blueprint for what is happening in the Crimea at the moment. Both incidents are, from a formal perspective, a violation of the Charter of the United Nations.”

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