The Crimea Model and Conflict in the Balkans

Last week Kosovo and Serbia were nearly engaged in their first conflict since 1999 after provocative actions involving a train.  On January 14th Serbia halted a train leaving from Belgrade heading towards a town in Northern Kosovo, Mitrovic.  The train was recalled amid concerns of a bomb threat supposedly made by ethnic Albania’s in Kosovo.  The train, which was purchased from Russia, was painted with the Serbian flag, and featured pictures of churches and monasteries along with the words ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ in 21 different languages, outraged many ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.


Such a trip between Belgrade, Serbia and Mitrovica, Kosovo would have been the first since 1999.  In 1999 NATO forces coerced Serbian leader Milosevic with relentless airstrikes to halt his bloody campaign against ethnic Albanians.  Since then, Kosovo’s borders have been controlled by a contingent of 5,000 NATO troops.  Although in 2008, Kosovo was recognized by over 85% of NATO and EU countries as a sovereign state, countries  like Serbia and Russia do not recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo.

Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci believes that the train was sent towards his country to provoke a military response in what he referred to as the ‘Crimea Model.’  Mitrovica, the town that the Serbian train was traveling towards is home to some 50,000 ethnic Serbs who remain loyal to Serbia.  In response to Thaci’s statement, the President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic said “If they are killing Serbs, we will send the army, all of us will go, I will go as well, it would not be my first time.”

The Crimea Model is a term that is becoming increasingly popular to describe a very specific tactic to leverage oneself in another country’s affairs.  The model is based upon a principle first set forth in the early 1990s by one of President Yeltsin’s advisers, Sergei Karaganov.  Karaganov believed in the idea of protecting ethnic Russians within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a Russian duty and responsibility.  This idea soon became known as the ‘Karaganov Doctrine.’

Since the early 1990’s when this Karaganov doctrine was first mentioned, it has developed into the so-called Crimea model of today which entails:

  • A larger state violating the sovereignty of a smaller state and annexing territory based upon ‘humanitarian concerns’ that are truly more political in nature
    • Deep historical connections between the states or territories
    • A large (Russian) population perceived to be oppressed or threatened either physically or in terms of political under-representation
    • And finally, a ‘triggering’ event

In terms of the Kosovo and Serbia feud, most elements of the Crimea model were met.

First, modern day Kosovo is the site of many ancient Serbian churches and relics that are still considered sacred to the Serbian people. A history reaching back almost 900 years ties the Serbian and Albanian people to this same area of land.

Secondly, in Northern Kosovo there is a large Serbian population that does not recognize Kosovo as a legitimate state. This Serbian population is therefore also underrepresented and left feeling marginalized in Northern Kosovo.  And finally the train incident last week represented what was almost a triggering event between these two states.

It is quite possible that Russia’s actions in Crimea may have inspired other states to attempt or at least consider a ‘Crimea model’ for themselves. The ‘Crimea model’ is dangerous because it represents a shift away from the constitutional order created by the United States and the Western world after World War 2.   As defined by Ikenberry in ‘After Victory,’ the goal of a constitutional order is to organize a group of states around an acceptable legal and political framework that limits a states return to the use of force.  In a constitutional order, the international system is organized around the rule of law.  And power (force) is restrained when institutions create credible and binding agreements that limit the utility of military action.  Essentially in a perfect constitutional order, the rights of the powerful are the same as the rights of the weak, and ‘might does not make right.’

Instead of multilateral cooperation between Ukraine, Russia and the international community to resolve disputes regarding Crimea and its inhabitants, Moscow unilaterally acted under false pretenses to achieve its goals, marking a step backwards for the post WWII order.  Similarly, in lieu of the lack of response over Russia’s action in Ukraine,Serbia may in-fact be pursuing a  ‘Crimea model’ strategy of their own. And if the recent inaugural speech by President Trump is any indicator, a world order that can be best described as ‘America first,’ may represent a shift towards a new era of international order best characterized as Hobbesian where each country purses its own narrowly defined national interests at the cost of greater cooperation and achievement.


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