NATO Versus Serbia - (PART 5)
by Gary Leupp
In that same month of March 1999, NATO (including its three new members) began bombing the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the first time since World War II that a European capital was subjected to bombardment. The official reason was that Serbian state forces had been abusing the Albanians of Kosovo province; diplomacy had failed; and NATO intervention was needed to put things right. This rationale was accompanied by grossly exaggerated reports of Serbian security forces’ killings of Kosovars, supposedly amounting to “genocide.”
This was largely nonsense. The U.S. had demanded at the conference in Rambouillet, France, that Serbia withdraw its forces from Kosovo and restore autonomy to the province. Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic had agreed. But the U.S. also demanded that Belgrade accept NATO forces throughout the entire territory of Yugoslavia—something no leader of a sovereign state could accept. Belgrade refused, backed by Russia.
A “senior State Department official” (likely U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) boasted to reporters that at Rambouillet “we intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. . . . The Serbs needed a little bombing to see reason.” Henry Kissinger (no peacenik) told the press in June: “The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, and excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.”
The U.S. had obtained UN approval for the NATO strikes on Bosnia-Herzegovina four years before. But it did not seek it this time, or try to organize a UN force to address the Kosovo problem. In effect, it insisted that NATO be recognized as the representative of “the international community.”
It was outrageous. Still, U.S. public opinion was largely persuaded that the Serbs had failed to negotiate peace in good faith and so deserved the bombing cheered on by the press, in particular CNN’s “senior international correspondent,” Christiane Amanpour, a State Department insider who kept telling her viewers, “Milosevic continues to thumb his nose at the international community”—because he’d refused a bullying NATO ultimatum that even Kissinger identified as a provocation!
After the mass slaughter of Kosovars became a reality (as NATO bombs began to fall on Kosovo), and after two and a half months of bombing focused on Belgrade, a Russian-brokered deal ended the fighting. Belgrade was able to avoid the NATO occupation that it had earlier refused. (In other words, NATO had achieved nothing that the Serbs hadn’t already conceded in Rambouillet!)
As the ceasefire went into effect on June 21, a column of about 30 armored vehicles carrying 250 Russian troops moved from peacekeeping duties in Bosnia to establish control over Kosovo’s Pristina Airport. (Just a little reminder that Russia, too, had a role to play in the region.)
This took U.S. NATO commander Wesley Clark by surprise. He ordered that British and French paratroopers be flown in to seize the airport but the British General Sir Mike Jackson wisely balked. “I’m not going to have my soldiers start World War III,” he declared.
I think it likely this dramatic last minute gesture at the airport was urged by the up-and-coming Vladimir Putin, a Yeltsin advisor soon to be appointed vice-president and then Yeltsin’s successor beginning in December 1999. Putin was to prove a much more strident foe of NATO expansion than his embarrassing predecessor.