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Jewish World Review April 3, 2000/ 27 Adar II, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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The Path to Putin -- IN LATE FEBRUARY, as the first anniversary of our intervention in Kosovo approached, American peacekeepers launched house-to-house raids in Mitrovica looking for weapons. They encountered a rock-throwing mob and withdrew. Such is our reward for our glorious little victory in the Balkans: police work from which even Madeleine K. Albright, architect of the war, admits there is no foreseeable escape. ("The day may come," she wrote on Tuesday, "when a Kosovo-scale operation can be managed without the help of the United States, but it has not come yet.")

The price is high. Our occupations of Kosovo and Bosnia have already cost tens of billions of dollars, draining our defense resources and straining a military (already hollowed out by huge defense cuts over the last decade) charged with protecting vital American strategic interests in such crisis areas as the Persian Gulf, the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula.

But there is another cost, more subtle and far heavier. Russia has just moved from the democratically committed, if erratic, Boris Yeltsin to the "dictatorship of the law" promised by the new president, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Putin might turn out to be a democrat, but the man who won the presidency by crushing Chechnya will more likely continue as the national security policeman of all the Russias.

What does that have to do with Kosovo? "Without Kosovo, Putin would not be Russian president today," says Dimitri Simes, the Russia expert and president of the Nixon Center.

The path from Kosovo to Putin is not that difficult to trace. It goes through Chechnya. Americans may not see the connection, but Russians do.

Russians had long been suffering an "Afghan-Chechen syndrome" under which they believed they could not prevail in local conflicts purely by the use of force. Kosovo demonstrated precisely the efficacy of raw force.

Russians had also been operating under the assumption that to be a good international citizen they could not engage in the unilateral use of force without the general approval of the international community. Kosovo cured them of that illusion.

And finally, Russia had acquiesced in the expansion of NATO under the expectation and assurance that it would remain, as always, a defensive alliance. Then, within 11 days of incorporating Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO was launching its first extraterritorial war.

The Russians were doubly humiliated because the Balkans had long been in their sphere of influences with Serbia as their traditional ally. The result was intense anti-American, anti-NATO feeling engendered in Russia. NATO expansion had agitated Russian elites; Kosovo inflamed the Russian public.

Kosovo created in Russia what Simes calls a "national security consensus:" the demand for a strong leader to do what it takes to restore Russia's standing and status. And it made confrontation with the United States a badge of honor.

The dash to Pristina airport by Russian troops under the noses of the allies as they entered Kosovo was an unserious way of issuing the challenge. But the support this little adventure enjoyed at home showed Russian leaders the power of the new nationalism.

The first Russian beneficiary of Kosovo was then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. But it was Prime Minister Putin who understood how to fully exploit it. Applying the lessons of Kosovo, he seized upon Chechen provocations into neighboring Dagestan to launch his merciless war on Chechnya. It earned him enormous popularity and ultimately the presidency.

One of Putin's first promises is to rebuild Russia's military-industrial complex. We are now saddled with him for four years, probably longer, much longer.

The Clinton administration has a congenital inability to distinguish forest from trees. It obsesses over paper agreements, such as the chemical weapons treaty, which will not advance American interests one iota. It expends enormous effort on Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, places of (at best) the most peripheral interest to the United States. And it lets the big ones slip away.

Saddam Hussein is back building his weapons of mass destruction. China's threats to Taiwan grow. The American military is badly stretched by far-flung commitments in places of insignificance. Most important of all, Russia, on whose destiny and direction hinge the future of Eastern Europe and the Caspian Basin, has come under the sway of a cold-eyed cop, destroyer of Chechnya and heir to Yuri Andropov, the last KGB graduate to rule Russia.

Such is the price of the blinkered do-goodism of this administration. We will be paying the price far into the next.

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