Fifteen years ago this week, I broke a promise I'd given to myself: After being captured and threatened with execution by Kosovar guerrillas the year before, I had sworn to give up war reporting. Now I was on my way to Belgrade to report on the effects the NATO bombing campaign was having on Serbia. When friends challenged my decision, I explained that I thought the course of history was changing at that very moment and I had to document it.
I was wrong about the documenting-it part: I stayed in the region for six weeks, writing a number of stories, including 34 separate dispatches for Slate from Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, but it took a lot longer than that for the catastrophic historic change to become evident. It has taken 15 years. Russia's invasion of Ukraine completes that story.
On March 24, 1999, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was on his way to Washington when he got word that NATO had begun bombing Kosovo. He ordered his plane turned around. A few hours later, he landed in a Moscow that was reeling from the insult of not being consulted. Russians had only a vague idea of what Kosovo was but a very strong concept of Serbia being a land of fellow Eastern Orthodox Slavs and of Yugoslavia being a rightful part of Moscow's sphere of influence. Not being consulted—or even, apparently, warned—sent the very clear message that the U.S. had decided it now presided over a unipolar world. There was no longer even the pretense of recognizing Russia's fading-superpower status: President Bill Clinton had chosen not to wait the few hours it would have taken for Primakov to land in Washington, allowing him to save face by at least pretending to have been in on the conversation.
From this point on, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's administration, already weak and embattled, would be unable to justify its friendly, perennially de-escalating posture toward the West. Anti-American feelings ran so high you would have thought the U.S. were bombing Russia. By turning his plane around, Primakov had endeared himself to the nationalist opposition and turned his back on Yeltsin. The liberals in Moscow were in a panic. The nationalists were mobilizing not only politically but also militarily: Men lined up outside the Yugoslav Embassy in Moscow to sign up to volunteer to defend Serbia.
The mood I found in Belgrade matched Moscow's perfectly. The country was mobilizing in support of its nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic. The few groups and people who continued to oppose him grew more marginalized and embattled by the day. They also grew increasingly paranoid, which paralyzed them. A daily concert in the center of town was literally drumming up support for the war effort, which had acquired the proud status of a defense effort—against the Americans, no less. A popular Russian rock group previously known as pro-Western came to play. When a young Serb opposition activist of my acquaintance got his draft notice, he readily donned the uniform: He did not want anyone to think anti-Milosevic activists were unpatriotic.
When I returned to Moscow in mid-May, the liberals' panic and the nationalists' fervor had subsided, but I found signs of the nationalists' newfound strength—and wrote my final dispatch about that. And then history followed its changed course. In August, Yeltsin anointed as his successor, a virtual unknown named Vladimir Putin. Within a few weeks, Putin became spectacularly popular by launching a new war in Chechnya. Politicians formerly known as liberals praised the Russian army for its performance there; one said it was “regaining its dignity.” He did not mention Kosovo, but he was referring to the general sense of humiliation that had stayed with Russians since the spring.
In December 1999, Putin became acting president, and the following March, he was elected to the office. Over the course of the following 14 years, he nurtured in the Russian public a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and especially for the fear it inspired in the rest of the world. In 2008, Russia invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia and effectively annexed part of its territory. And now it has done the same with Ukraine. This time Putin mentioned Kosovo. Indeed, in his speech to parliament on Tuesday, he made it very clear that by annexing Crimea he had avenged Russia for what had happened with Kosovo.