Kosovo, America and Russia

The following was read by two important historical figures: Former President
Ford and Alexander Yakovlev, the liberal Politburo member under Gorbachev.
Ford wrote me that he found it interesting. An assistant to Yakovlev through
whom I passed a copy to him told me that Yakovlev was quite impressed by
my analysis. The piece does illustrate an important point that President Trump
made in his press conference with Putin after the Helsinki, Finland summit when
he stated that both sides are at fault for the poor relations that have developed
between our two countries.

A Response to a Young Russian Friend

Sergey, in your last note you asked me what I think of the situation
regarding Kosovo, Russia and NATO. I would like to respond to this
question in some detail for a number of reasons– not least of which
is the fact that the current situation and our response to it will
have a profound impact on the kind of world that you and our young
people are going to live in.

The most serious difficulty with the current situation is that it is
poorly understood both here and in your country. This
misunderstanding threatens to bring us all a much nastier world
compared to what I think we could achieve with a better comprehension
of the issues we face not only in Yugoslavia but also between our two

In looking at these issues, I want to focus on some of the background
of the problem, on the issue of where I think both American and
Russian policy went wrong and on the current situation and how both of
us need to respond to it. In doing so, I am sure that some of my
observations may be wrong, but I do think it would be a useful
exercise to try to clarify some of my own thinking on the issues here.
And perhaps it might even give me a piece that could be shared with
others as a means of promoting more intelligent discussion of some of
the questions before us.

Background to a Disaster

Although I do not wish to appear to be ethnocentrically American, I do
believe that in understanding the current situation in the former
Yugoslavia it is most useful to start with the basic flaw in American
policy towards that region. The basic flaw of American policy, which
has continued right up to the current crisis, is that it supported
self-determination in the former Yugoslavia for everyone but the Serbs
and the Albanians. At the time that the country was breaking up it
was surely clear that the existing borders of the federation were
arbitrary and had, give the historical legacies of the region, to be
redrawn to reflect ethnic realities better.

One of the mantras of American policy in the region has been the
rejection of the idea of a Greater Serbia. But to my mind a Greater
Serbia, as well as a Greater Croatia, and a Greater Albania made a lot
of sense in the context of the breakup of the country. I do not see
why if the Croatians had a right to self-determination, the Krajinian
Serbs who lived in a compact region in the interior of the Croatian
Republic, should not have had the same right. The same goes for the
Bosnian Serbs who were at the time dominant in the regions of
Northwestern Bosnia next to the Krajina as well as for the Croatians
in Southwestern Bosnia next to Croatia. Bosnia was not, and in
reality is not, a country in the normal understanding of the term and
the majority of its inhabitants did not, and do not, wish to be part
of such a country.

It was very irresponsible of the Clinton administration in its early
period to have vetoed the plan that David Owen and the other mediator
put forward for partitioning Bosnia only to de facto embrace such a
solution in the Dayton accords after the resulting loss of tens of
thousands of lives and the dislocation of over a million people.
Similarly, I do not see why we should not have also recognized the
right of the Albanians in Kosovo as well as the right of the Albanians
in Western Macedonia to be a part of a greater Albania. Given the
civic society that Rugova and other Albanian leaders in Kosovo had
established in response to Milosevic’s repression, it would have
helped a great deal to have had Kosovar influence operating within an
enlarged Albanian state and I think a smaller Macedonia sans its
ethnic minority Albanians in the West would have been a lot stabler

At the time of the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation, I frankly did
not think about this. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, I
did begin to think about this because of the arbitrary nature of
internal Soviet borders and their potential for mischief. In both
cases, I think that it made sense for the rest of the world, the
United States included, to insist that it would not recognize states
based on existing internal borders. We could have, and I think we
should have, insisted that some procedures be established through
something like a constituent assembly for redrawing borders. If such
assemblies were unable to do this, then we should have insisted that
the United Nations do so. There was after all precedent for this in
the establishment of Israel. And while it did not work in that case,
it would at least have been worth the try. In the process, if we had
tried to provide some intellectual leadership, it might have even been
possible in the Yugoslav case for a constituent assembly that
circumvented the existing governments to come up with a proposal for a
new dispensation for the country that might have avoided its breakup.
Given the historical legacies of the region, something like this was
surely needed at the outset. I am convinced that it in part did not
occur because of a lack of understanding on our part of these

Many people here believe that the current problem is largely the
result of centuries of ethnic hostilities in the region. While there
may be some truth to this, I think that the real source of the problem
was the experience of the Serbs during the Second World War at the
hands of the Croatian Ustashi and their Roman Catholic allies. During
the war, as Eastern Slavic Orthodox Christians are well aware, the
Ustashi regime of Ante Pavelic ruthlessly promoted a campaign of
forced conversion to Roman Catholicism of around 2.5 million Orthodox
Serbs. As a 1950 United Nations memorandum relates, the focal center
for the forced conversions and the massacres had been the Franciscan
monastery of Shiroki Brieg in Herzegovina. Up to 700,000 Serbs and
Jews were sent by the Ustashi and their Moslem allies in Bosnia to
death camps which were in some cases run by members of the Franciscan

To this day, the Roman Catholic Church denies its complicity in this
as well as its role in helping shelter Croatian fascists after the
war. But recent denials by the Catholic Church and its claims,
reported in the New York Times in June 1998, that members of its
hierarchy did not assist these people after the war is simply
contradicted by known facts. The persecution of the well-know
Anglo-Irishman Herbert Butler by the Papal Nuncio and Catholic
hierarchy in Ireland after Butler denounced the sheltering of Ustashi
criminals by the government there in the early postwar period is an
example of this. The silence of the church on this is not simply a
matter of something that has happened more than half a century ago. It
has clearly impacted on the current situation in a most unfortunate

There is a marked tendency on the part of the American Administration
right now to blame Milosevic for creating all of the troubles in the
former Yugoslavia. But although Milosevic is clearly a ruthless
communist thug and does bear a lot of responsibility for the terrible
events there, it is simply disingenuous to put all of the blame on him
and the Serbs for the situation that developed. At the time of the
breakup of Yugoslavia many Western countries had great qualms about
recognizing Slovenia and Croatia as independent countries. But there
was little they were able to do about this because of strong German
pressure and premature German recognition of these countries. From
reports I have seen, it seems that a factor in the German policy was
heavy pressure from the German Roman Catholic hierarchy for
recognition of these states’ independence.

Given the history of the region in living memory, the Germans were
simply pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire. With many Yugoslavs
living in Germany, it is hard to see how the Serbs in Croatia and
Bosnia would not have been aware of this and terrified. After all,
many of them had lost parents and grandparents to the Germans and
Catholics during the Second World War. They could not have helped to
have been terribly concerned about a regime in Zagreb that had started
resurrecting old Ustashi symbols that was being supported by the
Germans. Nor could the Bosnian Serbs have not also been concerned
about the temporary alliance of convenience between the Croats and
Moslems there against them given that such an alliance had contributed
to the genocide of Serbs during the Second World War. In reacting to
this, the West needed to be cautious.

It would have helped had we made it clear that the West would not
pursue, as the United States in particular did, a double standard that
did not respond to Serb concerns. And it would have helped if the
Catholic Church had been more honest with itself and the rest of us
concerning its role during the Second World War and after in the
region. Although based on my own family history I am very wary of
Germans, I find it hard to believe that the men of the German Catholic
hierarchy were of such ill will that they would have pursued the
policies they did if they had understood the complexities that
Catholic involvement in Yugoslavia entailed. It would help the West
in its relations with the East, if we were more candid about our
failings in these matters. In particular, the Pope’s, I think
genuine, appeal for peace in Yugoslavia would not appear to be pious
drivel had the church been more honest about these matters. Such
action would have helped all of us in the West, Catholics and
Protestants alike, be more sensitive to avoiding policies that in fact
entailed double standards and has poisoned the well of good will
between our two countries.

The American Contribution to the Disaster

When I look at the policy of the Bush Administration towards the
breakup of Yugoslavia, I am greatly puzzled. But when I look at that
of the Clinton Administration, I am simply appalled. Perhaps under
the best of interpretations, the Bush policy towards Yugoslavia can be
described as one of benign neglect. Given that the second person in
the State Department, Eagleburger, had been a former ambassador to
Yugoslavia, I do not understand why the United States could not at
least have tried to provide some intellectual leadership on this issue
as I suggested above. But it did not and during the 1992 campaign
Bill Clinton perceived that he could score political points against
Bush by criticizing his Yugoslav policy. Unfortunately, Clinton was
quite irresponsible in his rhetoric and led the Bosians to think,
erroneously, that he would support them. This plus the refusal to
support Owen’s suggestion for partition early on assured a mess in
Bosnia that was corrected by the Dayton accord only after an appalling
loss of life and numerous threats by the Clinton administration that
were repeatedly not carried out until the situation got so desperate
that something had to be done. Of course, the Dayton accords are
fatally flawed in that they do not recognize the de facto situation,
that Bosnia is in fact not a country and is in fact a partitioned
protectorate of NATO. These surely are going to cause us future

While the Clinton Administration’s policies towards Croatia have not
been as disasterious as in Bosnia, they certainly have been much more
immoral and troubling. Tudjman, as I believe people in Russia
understand, basically runs a fascist government in Croatia. At the
outset of the Yugoslav civil war, the United Nations put an arms
embargo on the area. However, from accounts that have appeared in
numerous sources, it is clear that the United States under the Clinton
Administration aided and abetted third countries to circumvent that
embargo. In addition, former retired United States generals were
hired through a corporation in Virginia to train the Croatian army.
From clearly reliable reports it is rather obvious that they were
responsible for drawing up the plans for the invasion of the Krajina.
And it is also clear that during this invasion the United States
provided the Croatians with intelligence from the air cover that it
had over the Krajina at that time.

Given the situation of the Krajinian Serbs, it is clear that the
United States simply aided and abetted their ethnic cleansing in
Croatia. Serbs had lived in the Krajina for more than three
centuries. When Croatia started separating from Yugoslavia according
to reports that appear reliable, moderate Krajinian Serb leaders went
to Zagreb to deal with Tudjman and the Croatian Government. They were
met with arrests and imprisonment and more militant Serbs took over
the Serb leadership in the Krajina. The Serbs in the Krajina drove
out the Croatian minority. Given what we know now from the
proceedings in the Hague, this is understandable. At the time
according to testimony that appears to be very reliable, the Croatian
Government was running death squads all over Croatia against Serbs
living in the republic. It simply would have been irresponsible for
the Serb leaders in the Krajina under the circumstances not to try to
protect their own people and to seek support from the government in
Belgrade. I do not see how any person who knows the facts can deny
that the fate of the Krajinian Serbs entailed a double standard, as
informed people in your country well know. And I do not see how this
can but engender immense distrust in your country of American
policies in the former Yugoslavia.

Since he came to office, I have had very strong feeling about what
Clinton’s policies in the former Yugoslavia should have been given his
rhetoric in the 1992 campaign. I believe given his position that we
logically should have sent in an expeditionary force into Kosovo and
freed the ethnic Albanians there in 1993. At the same time, we should
have suggested to the Serbs that they might lose more territory,
Vovoidina with its ethnic Hungarian minority would have been my
candidate, if they did not get rid of Milosevic and his thugs. If
they did, we should have made it clear that we would support
self-determination for the Krajianian and Bosnian Serbs as we had for
the Albanians. I thought in 1993 that that was what we should have
done and am convinced that it likely would have put an end to the
tragedy then and there. We will never know. Instead we aided and
abetted the ethnic cleansing of the Krajianian Serbs. At the time one
astute observer of the Yugoslav scene, Misha Glenny I believe it was,
suggested that if Milosevic engaged in ethnic cleansing in Kosovo
that the United States Government would not be in a moral position to
oppose it. At one level, I cannot argue against this. But the
observation clearly illustrates one thing: the ethnic cleansing of
Kosovo by Milosevic and his thugs was rather predictable. It has been
four years since the Krajianan Serbs were cleansed and the remaining
Serbs in Krajina were killed, as we know from United Nations reports,
by the Croats. That should have given the Clinton administration
plenty of time to prepare a workable plan to head off ethnic cleansing
in Kosovo.

The Current Situation and the Future

From the statements of your leaders in so far as they are known to me,
I do not have the feeling that ethnic Russians, really understand what
is happening in Kosovo right now. Given all the reports that are
coming out of there and what we know of Serbian operations in Bosnia,
it is clear that horrible ethnic cleansing is going on. There are
numerous reports of civilian men being separated from their families.
We know what happened in Bosnia when that occurred, the men were shot
and their families never saw them again. Whole villages are being
emptied by Serb para-militaries and burned. Pristina is being
forcibly emptied of its Albanian inhabitants. Whatever our past
mistakes, and as I have outlined above they have been inexcusable, we
should not tolerate such a thing in Europe. And neither should Russia
if it wished others to consider it to be a country worthy of respect.
On this score, I believe that your prime minister, Primakov, ought to
tell your country what really is going on in Kosovo and adjust its
policies accordingly. And he ought to have the courage to tell the
United States and its NATO allies that just bombing and not be willing
to send in troops to Kosovo to stop the ethnic cleansing is an
immorally unworkable policy. I think that such an action would have
very salutory effects in bringing the current disaster to a speedy and
more desirable conclusion.

I realize that what I have just said would shock a lot of Russians.
But it is said both out of a genuine concern over the situation in
Kosovo as well as out of a concern of the consequences of the foreign
policies that your current government has followed. While the current
situation in Yugoslavia is very much the consequence of the failures
of the Clinton administration in this area, it is also the consequence
of your government’s own policies.

As you may know, I regard the fall of communism in your country to
have presented us with a wonderful opportunity to reintegrate into
European civilization a people who had contributed so much to it,
especially in the last century before the great disaster of the First
World War and the Russian Revolution. Yet the policies that have been
pursued by both sides, the Yeltsin Government and the Bush and Clinton
Administrations, have failed to exploit this opportunity. Instead of
re-integrating our civilization both sides have simply heightened the
divisions that should have gone away with the fall of the Soviet
system. By expanding NATO, we have moved the dividing line in Europe
further east and left the continent with the continuation of divisive
alliances that has so bedeviled its history when we had a unique
opportunity to perhaps break with that pattern for the first time
since the fall of Rome. And by the mentality of your leaders, who in
reality have viewed the fall of the Soviet system as a cold war defeat
that they had to make the best of, we got the acceptance of NATO
expansion by your government that many of us here regarded as unwise
in the extreme.

The basic problem as I see it here has been the continuation of great
power pretenses on the part of the Russian Federation. This has led
to continued rivalry with us and a failure to engage us effectively.
I realize that the incompetence of the Clinton’s administration in the
foreign policy area has greatly complicated matters here–last year
members of Gore’s national security team admitted to one professor
from the University of Michigan that the administration has no Russian
policy–but that is not a valid reason for supporting a Sadam Husein
or a Milosevic as your prime minister and foreign policy establishment
has been wont to do. These things only reinforce the negative
stereotypes of the Russian peoples that, quite unjustifiably to my
mind, are rife in the West, especially in the American academic

If your leaders had a genuine concern for the Serbs, which seems quite
legitimate to me, rather than rhetorical concerns, you should have
conducted a very different policy than you did. You should have used
your influence to have gone after Milosevic while defending the
legitimate interests of the Serbs. In the current situation both
sides need to face up to their policy errors and reassess their
positions. If we do not, the current disaster in Yugoslavia is going
to poison our relations for a long time to come.

In reassessing its foreign policy position, I strongly feel that there
are some additional things besides the current situation in the former
Yugoslavia that your country needs to take a look at. At the top of
the list I would place the excessive tendency on the part of ethnic
Russians to blame much of their misfortune on America. At the time it
occurred, the Bush Administration, quite correctly I believe, did not
want to see the breakup of the former Soviet Union. But there was
little it could do about it given the determination of the presidents
of the slavic republics, including one who was highly inebriated at
the time, to destroy the country without consulting its people. The
Russians really ought to stop blaming us for this very costly mistake.

And although we may share some of the blame for your economic disaster,
I think that far too much has been made there of American culpability
in this matter. The basic advice we tried to give was not that different
from much of the advice we urged on the Poles. In giving advice, I
do not think, as many do there (as you know from a meeting we had last
year there in St. Petersburg) that our intentions were bad. And in
fact, the Polish reforms have worked remarkably well. The failure
of reform in Russia has very much been the consequence of an unworkable
government there, the isolation of your economists for so long from
the world economic community (which the Polish economists had not suffered)
and a failure, in making reform, to work on developing a national consensus
on where you needed to go.

As you may know, for some time now I have tried to do some things to
help on the situation there. The republication in Novy Mir in 1990 of
the 1921-22 article by the great Russian economist, Boris Brutskus,
due to my efforts, was one of my more successful attempts to help. And
I have been able to help students come here to study and, as you well
know, in one case to do so free. In that effort and in our more
recent efforts to help my friend’s Orthodox church in Moscow in its
outreach to the poor there, we were able to raise from American
sources, a not inconsiderable amount of money. I believe that this
shows that Americans are in fact concerned about the fate of your
country and do want to help. If I can make a trip there this spring,
I would hope that I could engage you and other good people there in a
dialogue about how we might work together to bring our countries
closer together and get beyond the difficulties of the disaster in
Yugoslavia that is bedeviling us now. Your future and that of our
young people may very much depend upon this sort of dialogue taking
place. I look forward to catching up with you and other friends
John Howard Wilhelm