Kosovo Through Russian Eyes

To the vast majority of Russians — at least to those who are paying attention — the war in Kosovo is not aimed primarily at the Serbs, but at them. The growing anti-Western feelings are creating a new Cold War-like atmosphere in Russia, and to Russian democratic leaders such as Yegor Gaidar, “Every strike on Yugoslavia is a blow to the prospects of maintaining democracy in Russia.”

Why is this the case? Why do Russians view the conflict so differently than other European nations? Solidarity with the Serbs, who are their Slavic “brothers” is part of the reason; solidarity with fellow Orthodox believers is also a factor. But the reasons for the Russians’ anger over Kosovo go much deeper than this.

Struggling with the loss of power and status as a Superpower. The collapse of Communism fundamentally changed Russian society, ended the Cold War, and led to the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Empire. The “myths” that both sides used to explain the activities of their Cold War rivals were dispelled, and former enemies tried to understand each other, to accept each other, and to hammer out a new way to coexist.

Most Russians were shocked by what they learned about their own country. Gone was the pride in Soviet accomplishments — replaced by embarrassment over their backwardness in relation to the countries of the West. The horrors of Stalinist gulags, human rights abuses and economic mismanagement were now exposed for all to see. For a Superpower with unquestioned military might, it is not easy to lose that status and be sidelined. The attacks on Serbia were agreed upon by NATO leaders without consultation with Moscow. After promising not to attack Serbia, the West launched the air raids. For Russians, this action clearly indicated that the West was willing to break their earlier promise, ignore Russia’s wishes, and, in effect, rub Russia’s nose into the ground by making clear to the world that she is a second-class power.

Inferiority complex. The loss of Superpower status and the realization that their leaders had lied to them about the Soviet Union’s economic achievements led the Russian people directly to a growing inferiority complex. Material discrepancies between Russians and Americans or between Russians and Western Europeans were hard to ignore. When the Soviet propaganda machines were silenced, the people clearly saw the true state of their underdevelopment.

The attacks on Kosovo created a release for these pent-up frustrations. In recent months, the inferiority complex subtly shifted to a “moral superiority complex.” Here’s the way Russian thinking has developed. Russians perceived that the world began living by a different set of rules in the early 1990s. Military security systems were dismantled, the arms markets was controlled by joint agreements rather than by competing Cold War blocs, a single international security system was created, and there was a ban on the use of force to settle international conflicts. Russians took credit for dissolving the Warsaw Pact, reducing the size of their army, and dismantling some of their nuclear weapons. In their view, the West did not follow suit. Instead NATO was not only rebuilt, but extended right up to their borders. “Why is NATO needed at all,” they ask, “unless it is aimed at us?”

American arrogance. For Russians, the NATO attacks are clear evidence that these powers, especially the United States, intend to rule the world, to play the world’s policeman. Mikhail Gorbachev is back on television in Russia, blasting the war in Kosovo by arguing that the war is designed to humiliate Europe, humiliate Russia, and humiliate China. In his judgment, the war makes no sense. After hearing President Clinton declare that the 21st century, like the 20th, would be “an American century,” Gorbachev responded, “Then where should Russia go? To Mars? Or where? What about China?”

The fact that the United States has bombed four countries (Serbia, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan) in the last seven months, and initiated this war in Kosovo without a United Nations mandate, is evidence that it intends to run the world. To Russians, the attacks on Serbia are really aimed at them and the Chinese – they are designed to show that if the Russians stepped out of line, they can expect similar punishment.

Virtual warfare. Many Russians see this conflict as a high-tech computer game that the United States and its allies are playing, without concern for the loss of innocent lives. The NATO powers are dropping bombs from 30,000 feet, safe distances from Serbian anti-aircraft weapons, and are keeping careful tallies of so many sorties, so many bombs dropped each day. No NATO loss of lives, not much risk, a cheap war. Meanwhile, civilians are killed and refugees are slaughtered. The fact that the military means employed bear little relationship to the political objectives stated is evidence to the Russians that this war is not about Serbia, but is about sending a message to others.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have been struggling with the issue of their national identity and their role in the world. President Yeltsin launched a public competition to identify “the Russian national idea” that would serve to unify the Russian people. The political vacuum, created by the implosion of Communist ideology, remained unfilled until recent months. Anti-Western feelings may now become the substitute ideology in Russia. It’s a negative ideology, not a positive one. But, for Russians who are feeling humiliated and ignored, and who are not used to this kind of treatment, these sentiments serve as a rallying-point – an outlet for those angry or frustrated with their lots in life.