No blows likely over Kosovo split, but chill between Russia, West deepening

>MOSCOW (AP) – Russia may not come to outright blows with the West over Kosovo, but independence for the province seems sure to deepen the Cold War-style chill settling over Europe.

Detaching Kosovo from Serbia will likely aggravate disputes over a host of sensitive security issues ranging from missile defense to NATO membership for the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.

“There are several different issues coming together – that’s what makes it so dangerous,” said Anatol Lieven, a Russia expert who is a professor at King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington.

Kosovo is sacred to Serbs, who call it the cradle of their statehood and religion. The province also strikes a chord in the President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin – for reasons beyond the roots Russia shares with Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia.

Kosovo stands as a symbol of Russia’s weakness in the post-Soviet era. Despite its fury over the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia – denounced by Boris Yeltsin as a return to the “Stone Age” – Moscow recognized a peace deal that put the mostly ethnic Albanian province under the control of the U.N. and the Western alliance.

Putin has built his popularity on restoring Russian pride, pushing to recapture its global clout and showing increasing assertiveness toward the West. That means acquiescence is off the table.

“The issue is not so much Kosovo itself but Russia’s grandeur,” said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office.

Speculation that Russia would strike a compromise with the West was shattered last August when Moscow torpedoed a plan for supervised independence by threatening a U.N. Security Council veto.

“Kosovo has become a very successful way to show that Russia has an opinion and does not intend to change it to accommodate anyone,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “It’s really not support for Serbia, but support for principles.”

An independence declaration could come as early as this week, and Moscow says it has developed a secret plan for responding to it. Meanwhile, Russians are warning that Western recognition will set a dangerous precedent, legitimizing independence claims from separatists across Europe – Scots, Basques, Turkish Cypriots – and beyond. A report on a government-supported English-language Russian satellite TV channel even threw Vermont secessionists into the mix.

More seriously, Moscow has implied that it could hit back by recognizing the independence claims of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – two Russian-supported provinces in Georgia, whose pro-Western government plays a key role in the struggle for influence pitting Russia against the U.S. and European Union.