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Book Reviews - General (7 titles)

John Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russian and Kosovo (foreword by Strobe Talbott). Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. 333 pages.

Guillaume Colin

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Political Science
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1Recension requires thoroughness in reading and examining a book, including its cover. In this connection, the cover of John Norris' book bodes ill for its content. A physical map with mountains, waterways, a few localities - most of which are half hidden by the title. However, enough of them can be made out (Argun, Aksay, Khasavyurt, Gudermes...) to understand that this is no map of Kosovo but that of Chechnya! Could anyone fail to suspect an unfortunate mistake, a slip of the pen confirming Russian geostrategists' worst nightmare : Chechnya after Kosovo, Russia after Yugoslavia? Luckily, John Norris' account and analysis of American diplomatic action during the Kosovo crisis - more exactly during the 78 days of NATO bombing over Yugoslavia - are a far cry from such clichés.

2First and foremost, this is an eye-witness account. John Norris was part of a team led by Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, for the Americans in tripartite negotiations with Viktor Chernomyrdin for Russia and Mahti Ahtisaari, the Finnish president acting as third party, in an attempt to resolve the crisis.

3Far from reconstructing the story of these events in a smooth and linear fashion, John Norris leads the reader into the ups and downs of diplomacy in extraordinary times. This is a rich testimony. Scripts of telephone conversations, anecdotes and portraits, especially those of Russian diplomats and officers (Aleksandr Avdeyev, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Georgy Mamedov, Boris Mayorski, Igor Ivanov, Yevgeny Barmyantsev, Leonid Ivashov, Viktor Zavarzin) are included not only to complete the account : they also help to present diplomacy in a human light.

4Firstly, John Norris offers an inside view on American motivations and preoccupations during the crisis ; on the work carried out by American diplomacy to maintain fragile cohesion between the allies and NATO and, especially, to include Russia in the settlement of the conflict. This last aspect seems to have been the major concern for American diplomacy throughout the Kosovo crisis and, notably, in the case of the tripartite negotiations. In addition, this allows for an easier understanding of the book's NATO, Russia and Kosovo cross-title. In retrospect, this will to preserve Russia (at any price) or, more precisely, to preserve Russian power as personified by president Yeltsin, seems symptomatic of president Clinton's team's attitude with regard to Russia. This is most acutely borne out by the scripts of the tragicomic telephone conversations between the two presidents : "Clinton stressed that the situation was at a critical juncture and that Russia and the United States stood on the verge of a great achievement. Clinton immediately noticed that Yeltsin sounded either sick or drunk, or both, and the Russian president - not known for his mastery of English - answered some of questions even before they were translated..." (p. 216). More seriously, John Norris' description reveals all the ambivalence in relations between Russia and America during the 1990s. The situation was still charged with cold war memories, if only because the people in question were still partly the same or, at least, brought up during these bygone times ("Under his carefully appointed, almost effete, appearance, lay an un-reconstructed Soviet worldview." (p. 33) - as his description of the Deputy Foreign Minister, Aleksandr Avdeyev, reads), in a context where the imbalance was ever wider : on the one hand, American diplomacy in a position of strength, imposing its vision and not hesitating to stand against Russia without the approval of the Security Council ; on the other, Russian diplomacy in crisis, without any arguments to put forward in a situation too far removed from its direct interests. And yet, despite this imbalance, both parties seemed attached to maintaining an illusion of parity fooling no one any longer. "In short, we should keep in constant and close communication with Moscow, but not let them become deeply involved in a serious negotiation - for the sake of the US-Russian relationship." (Richard Holbrooke quoted p. 55).

5The contrast between his description of the way American diplomacy functions and his outlook on the functioning of Russian diplomacy is equally gripping even if, of course, his viewpoint carries different weight in the two cases.

6The picture he paints of the American decision-making process during the Cuban missile crisis bears some resemblance to Graham Allison's analyses during the said crisis. Indeed, we find different ingredients of 'Allisonian' analysis, whether it be elements of a rational approach, of the importance of political bargaining or of the role of organisational processes. With its exchanges and confrontation of ideas and difficult arbitration between solutions, all presenting defects, American diplomacy appeared as diplomacy in quest of its own identity, where taking a position of principle stands alongside gradual and practical adjustments. Power and influence struggles between personalities (between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and William Holbrooke or between Wesley Clark, commander-in-chief of NATO troops and Secretary of Defense William Cohen...) or between departments and agencies also played a part. In the end, however, the game was under control and the 'dysfunctioning' (with regard to a linear and vertical vision of rational decisions), allowing above all for the game to be kept open and leading to a practical optimum not disowned by John Norris.

7In the Russian case, dysfunctioning took on a whole other dimension. Its real origins were to be found in the institutional and political chaos which seemed capable of overflowing, at any moment, as much domestically as internationally. The occupation of Slatina airport, by a small contingent of Russian troops coming from Bosnia, was a clear illustration of the political chaos in Russia : neither the Defense Minister, nor the Foreign Minister, nor even the Russian President's Special envoy seemed to have been included in the secret surrounding this initiative, as well as its possible consequences.

8Nevertheless, it could be argued that this institutional and political chaos in Russia, pointed out by John Norris, was also, paradoxically, the Russian President's major trump card, as much on the diplomatic front as on that of politics at home. The political weakness of the Russian president was, first of all, a major argument in negotiations with the United States and Boris Yeltsin played it to the hilt: Yeltsin to Clinton: "You know that I am hearing concerns by our military who are talking about getting military servicemen to go and help Milosevic [...]. Yeltsin continued to stress the difficulty of the situation and how he was doing his best to cooperate." (p. 67). The President's weakness, both physical and political, resulted in real vagueness concerning the powers and attributions of the various Russian negotiators : the President's Special envoy, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister..., a highly destabilising situation both for the Russian political participants themselves and for their American counterparts : "Gore pleaded to have Yeltsin call Ivanov and give him clear instructions. While Chernomyrdin was sympathetic, he mentioned sheepishly that he was not able to directly contact President Yeltsin." (p. 217). But was it not this vagueness which, in a certain manner, allowed Boris Yeltsin to maintain his influence and control over domestic politics, by giving him the possibility of disavowing (and discrediting) or, on the contrary, taking credit for his subordinates' initiatives? In this fashion Boris Yeltsin, after several days' silence, was able to revindicate instigating the “Trojan Horse” operation aimed at occupying Slatina airport. And Boris Yeltsin came paradoxically strengthened out of an internal political crisis, which was seemingly to signal his political doom, and an international political crisis seen as a real slap in the face for Russian diplomacy in the 1990s. Some months later, after organising the question of his succession, he left power head held high.

9Finally, John Norris' work offers a useful extra layer of information for those who followed these events closely. For those who followed them a little less closely, it is a fascinating look behind the scenes of American diplomacy and American-Russian relations. For everybody, it brings a fresh, stimulating view of events which are sufficiently recent to be part of our history and of participants who are not all retired yet, …or only just.

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Electronic reference

Guillaume Colin, “John Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russian and Kosovo (foreword by Strobe Talbott). Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. 333 pages.”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 4/5 | 2006, Online since 27 November 2006, connection on 24 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Guillaume Colin

Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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