“The unrestrained assault by ___ military, police and paramilitary forces, under the direction of President ___, on ___ civilians has created a massive humanitarian catastrophe which also threatens to destabilize the surrounding region. Hundreds of thousands of people have been expelled ruthlessly from ___ by the ___ authorities. We condemn these appalling violations of human rights and the indiscriminate use of force by the ___ government.”
You could effortlessly insert the words “Russian,” “Putin,” “Ukrainian” and “Ukraine” into the blanks in the above statement. Actually, these words date back to April 1999, and the blanks are, in order, “Yugoslav,” “Milošević,” “Kosovar” and “Kosovo.” They are taken from the NATO statement that announced an unprecedented aerial war against the now-defunct Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).
It’s worth recalling why NATO went to war 23 years ago. As the same statement put it, “hundreds of thousands of people have been expelled ruthlessly from Kosovo by the FRY authorities. We condemn these appalling violations of human rights and the indiscriminate use of force by the Yugoslav government. These extreme and criminally irresponsible policies, which cannot be defended on any grounds, have made necessary and justify the military action by NATO” (emphasis added).
By its own admission, NATO considered the systemic abuse of Albanians in Kosovo by the regime of President Slobodan Milošević to be a casus belli—justification for military action by the alliance. There was no disputing the reality on the ground in Kosovo, where Serb forces were carrying out bestial violations of human rights, but wars are rarely if ever fought on purely ethical grounds.
The questions raised by such a position are fiendishly complex: If we were willing to risk our forces to fight for the human rights of Albanians, why not Syrians, or Uyghurs? If we were willing to bypass the U.N. Security Council in order to wage our war in the name of human dignity, what precedents did we set that our adversaries could use later on? Would we have been as brazen about deploying our formidable military in defense of human rights if the Milosevic regime had been armed with nuclear weapons?
As we have learned in Ukraine over the last three weeks, the answer to that last question is negative. Whatever its authors may have believed at the turn of the millennium, the war to liberate Kosovo was definitively a creature of its time. It could be waged for two main reasons. Firstly, the NATO intervention—78 days of aerial warfare that has subsequently been described as a “winning ugly” strategy—was overwhelmingly supported by its intended beneficiaries, the Albanian majority in Kosovo who had spent the previous decade under the direct rule of Belgrade. Secondly, as much as the Russians consider the Serbs to be a brotherly nation, and as furious and humiliated as they were to see NATO planes pummeling their allies, they were in no position to meaningfully aid Milošević with either conventional or nuclear forces. In 1999, the year that Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, the world was experiencing what international relations theorists called a “unipolar” moment: The United States was the only true world power.
These days, the international environment is more reminiscent of the great power rivalries that preceded World War I. Challenges to American power are multiple, and they emanate not only from the outside. Arguably, the most significant brake on a more assertive U.S. military role is comprised of the feelings of Americans themselves. However sympathetic they feel towards the bombed, beleaguered Ukrainians, Americans are still reluctant to place their troops in combat roles absent a direct threat to this country. That reality gives succor to Russia and China, neither of whom have to worry about the twists and turns of public opinion.
Were the Serbs to carry out their campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo today, it is virtually impossible to imagine NATO launching a similar operation as in 1999. Indeed, further north in Bosnia, there has been much talk in recent weeks that the political framework for peace that was agreed in 1996 is rapidly unraveling. Whatever ethical challenges would arise from a renewed Serb attempt to secede, most obviously mass expulsions of non-Serbs, any robust NATO response would be tempered by the realization that the Serbs in Bosnia can look to Moscow with greater confidence now than during the 1990s.
None of this should imply that Russia is invincible. The incompetence of its armed forces has been of full view. But during the Ukraine invasion, we have been reminded of the fury that a failing army can unleash. Even with its tanks and armored vehicles “frozen,” as a British intelligence assessment put it, Russia can still pulverize Ukrainian towns and cities with its shells and bombs. The beautiful city of Mariupol is now a shadow of its former self, Kharkiv has been shattered, and Odessa has been bracing for several days for an all-out Russian assault. By any measure, the criteria laid out by NATO in Kosovo—“… extreme and criminally irresponsible policies, which cannot be defended on any grounds, have made necessary and justify the military action …”—apply wholly in the case of Ukraine.
Consistency has never been a hallmark of international affairs, so we shouldn’t be shocked by the presence of double standards and hypocrisies. That is why self-reliance in the realm of national defense remains of critical importance, even when you are a state that has been embraced by almost the entire world, as Ukraine is right now.
Israel is a pertinent example of a state that is, in ideological and strategic terms, a part of the Western alliance, but would never dream of relying on foreign allies for its defense. Unlike Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states, no American soldier has ever died fighting for Israel on the battlefield. In successive wars with varying outcomes—from the dizzying victories of the 1967 Six-Day War to the grim interventions in Lebanon—Israel has learned that only its own officers and soldiers are unquestioningly reliable.
As they resist the Russian onslaught, the Ukrainian armed forces are learning the same thing.
“No people ever was and remained free, but because it was determined to be so,” observed the liberal political theorist John Stuart Mill in an 1859 essay that frowned on the idea of intervening in the quarrels of others, even when the moral offenses are painfully obvious. From its inception, Israel understood that while it had partners and allies, it was solely responsible for its physical survival as a Jewish state. Kosovo showed that, very, very occasionally, history can be on your side. But as Ukrainians are discovering, and Jews have long known, most of the time history works against you.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.