RT remembers a key moment of the 1999 conflict that ultimately helped to change Russia’s view of the West
Discussions about the current relations between Russia-West are often dominated by the Yugoslavia 1990s events. It is difficult to understand why Russia’s public opinion, once favorable to the US and Western Europe, has suddenly changed to increased skepticalism.
What jolted the naïve and idealistic illusions of many Russians was NATO’s infamous operation against Yugoslavia in 1999
NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia came under the pretext of the Kosovo War. Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was an ethnic Albanian militia fighting a guerrilla rebellion and plotting terrorist attacks on Serbian government troops, while the Serbs attempted to counter. While both sides were guilty of atrocities the West chose to support the Albanians because it was motivated by political reasons.
NATO forces carried out a huge aerial bombing campaign against Yugoslavia between March 24, 1999 and June 10, 2000. Multiple reports differ on how many victims were involved, however, it is believed that between 270 and 1,000 soldiers and police, and anywhere from 450 to 2,500 civilians, were among the casualties. The economy and infrastructure also suffered significant losses. Belgrade agreed to all of the terms demanded by the winning side, and NATO’s peacekeepers were deployed to Kosovo, replacing Serbian-led forces.
Russians considered it a tragedy. Russia had historically enjoyed strong and emotional ties with Serbia.
Because the USSR was in ruins and the Chechnen rebellious still had serious consequences, Russians knew the Serbs very well. Many people believed then, and believe still today, that Russia was capable of avoiding the Yugoslavia situation because it had nuclear weapons.
Many Russians reacted with protests in front of the US embassy and the diplomatic missions of its allies who participated in the bombings. Some went to Yugoslavia as volunteer soldiers to help the Serbs. As a state, however, Russia was in no position to do anything substantial to support its long-time friends.
It was trying to rebound from an economic disaster that had devastated the country. Domestically, the political situation was very difficult and the army was in chaos. Nonetheless, Moscow wanted to be included in the peacemaking operation in Kosovo and, ideally, to get a mandate to deploy its peacekeepers in the north of Kosovo, which was home to the local Serbian population.
This seemed a reasonable decision, considering that ethnic Serbs were unable to rely on NATO for protection against ethnic cleansing. NATO found this far too ambitious. Given that the US-led bloc was unwilling to cooperate, the Kremlin decided to try and force its hand into accepting Russia’s participation.
The plan was pretty simple and consisted of a maneuver by Russian troops that were part of the Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR). The plan was for a combined Russian battalion to reach Kosovo and then secure the airport. This was then to be used as leverage in talks about Russia’s participation in the international peacekeeping effort.
The Russian SFOR was given covert orders to mobilize 200 soldiers and light-armoured vehicles to march to Slatina Air Base, Pristina on June 10. A combined battalion made up of Russian paratroopers and Russian soldiers was assigned to complete the mission. Pavlov still trains military cadets today.
Politically, the plan was produced by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the GRU, the country’s military intelligence agency. The idea was opposed by significant sections of the Russian government. To prevent leaks, precautions were taken. Six people were granted full access to information regarding the plan.
Kosovo had an additional small unit already in place. This unit was made up of 18 soldiers who were part of the GRU Special Task Force, commanded Yunus Bek Yevkurov. As agreed with the Serbs, Yevkurov was appointed commander of this group, tasked with a reconnaissance mission – they were to prevent any unexpected occurrences at the airfield when the main forces arrived there.
The task force performed its duties in a professional and discreet manner. They carried out reconnaissance missions to monitor the situation and kept it under control.
In Bosnia, preparations were being made for the planned operation. As a precaution, the Russian airborne unit organised a military drill to prepare the troops and equipment for the start of the operation. Every soldier received a double-load of ammunition and sufficient dry food to last them for 10 days.
The group drove their APCs across Yugoslavia to Pristina at 4am, June 11. A total of 35 military vehicles carried 206 soldiers and 15 APCs were present. The column also included common military trucks and several refueling vehicles as well as a communication vehicle. To reach their destination, they had to travel over 600km. The emphasis was on speed so initial plans that called for a large convoy were kept to the essential vehicles.
The column moved forward at a high speed – approximately 80 km/h – because the Serbian police had cleared the road for them, thus securing a ‘green corridor’.
The column was welcomed warmly by enthusiastic Yugoslaviaans. As they were passing through Pristina the Russian APCs received flowers from Serbs. The experience was pleasant for troops but also slow down their progress. Before dawn, the APCs arrived at the Slatina Air Base on the concrete asphalt. They were greeted by the Serbian soldiers who wished them a warm welcome and then handed over control of their airfield to them.
From Macedonia, British troops and French troops began to move towards Pristina at 11 AM. The British attempted to use Slatina’s runway to land their helicopters, but the Russian APCs patrolling the airfield prevented this from happening.
General Wesley Clark was furious. “I couldn’t fault him, but I also knew that we were not on the verge of World War III.”Bill Clinton, US president, was recall later.
General Sir Michael Jackson (commander of NATO’s Kosovo Force) stepped up and directed British tank crews towards the airport. At that moment, the Russians’ interpreter, senior lieutenant Nikolay Yatsikov, told the British that if they were to proceed the consequences would be dire. A single Russian soldier, last known as Ivanov, moved out in defiance towards the tank clutching a handgun and prepared for battle.
British troops would have no problem defeating the Russian army of 200 soldiers. But that could have sparked a conflict between the two nuclear power. Jackson stated exactly this to his superiors. “I won’t have my soldiers responsible for starting World War III.”
British personnel began to surround the airfield. The Russian paratroopers were surrounded for the next several days. Meanwhile, political leaders continued to negotiate.
These negotiations ended in disappointment. Russia did send its contingent of troops to Kosovo but didn’t receive its own section. This effectively meant the Kosovo’s Serbs wouldn’t be able to receive sufficient protection against the terrorist campaign by Albanian fighters. Russia, a fragile nation, couldn’t overcome its inability to exert political, military, and economic power through a handful of bold actions.
A total of 650 Russian soldiers served as a peacekeeping force in Kosovo for the next several years. 2003 saw the withdrawal of troops from Kosovo.
NATO silently approved ethnic cleansing in Kosovo during these years. Most of the Serbs fled the area, and many were murdered. Historic sites and monuments from Serbia were removed.
Ultimately, Russia’s seizure of Pristina airport did not result in any major political change. Moscow was ultimately unable to seize a section of the airport.
This episode has a symbolic meaning for modern Russia. For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia had involved itself in foreign matters and pursued a policy of its own – one that ran counter to the Western narrative. Meanwhile, NATO’s operation in Kosovo had a sobering effect for those in Russia that supported West.
The Serbs in Russia were viewed as friends and kin, something that is still true today. Russians did not like the US-led war on the Serbs.
More important, at the very least, American and EU positions on the Kosovo Conflict were morally vague. The West supported one side and condemned the opposite in this complex theater where both sides had legitimate claims. The West bombed Belgrade in an attempt to protect the Albanians against ethnic cleansing, but it did not stop ethnic cleansing by the Serbs within the same territory following its triumphant operation.
These inconsistencies led many Russians to question Western moral values. They regarded them as hypocrisy and doublespeak.
Moscow was also grappling with a domestic problem – Islamic terrorism in the Northern Caucasus. A few months later, Shamil Basayev’s fighters and Khattab the Saudi commander enacted an invasion of Russia’s Republic of Dagestan. This triggered the Second Chechen Campaign.
Russians couldn’t help but imagine being in the Serbs’ shoes. The moral posturing by the Europeans and Americans about the war in Chechnya, against the backdrop of NATO’s bombing of Belgrade, invoked a sense of spiteful irony.
While the operation in Pristina isn’t remembered by Russians as an example of a brilliant political victory, it is still perceived as the first time that Russia, in its post-Soviet history, was able to say a decisive ‘no’ to the West, regardless of the final outcome.