The Yugoslav city of Novi Sad on fire in 1999 (photo Darko Dozet)
The Yugoslav city of Novi Sad on fire in 1999 (photo Darko Dozet)

by Vladimir Gujanicic

This spring we are marking the twentieth anniversary of almost forgotten 78-day aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, more precisely today’s Serbia and Montenegro. The US-led NATO mission represented the first major military intervention since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the aim of achieving global hegemony. This war was very specific in terms of goals, mutual implementation, and methods used to accomplish military-political “solution.”

After the bloody civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia (the former Yugoslav republics) and the 1995 Dayton Agreement, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remained the only unincorporated in a new form of European and global market system, with an independent economic and cultural model. During these wars, the Yugoslav economy was hit hard by several rounds of international sanctions and by influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia and Croatia.

In the military sphere, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević succeeded in creating a Serb entity in Bosnia, but failed to do the same in Croatia. His presidential authority was shaken because of these wars, but he still remained in power. From 1995 to 1997, the embargo against FR Yugoslavia was lifted and its economy began to recover. Nevertheless, a new crisis broke out with the aim of overthrowing the Yugoslav leadership and replacing it with a pro-US loyal government. The only possible scenario for achieving these goals was the escalation of the frozen conflict between Serbs and Albanians in the Serbian autonomous region of Kosovo and Metohija.

The Albanian nationalist rebellions have a long history, starting in the Kingdom of Serbia, and lasting until the time of Socialist Yugoslavia. The last two major rebellions were recorded in 1981 and 1989, but were suppressed. An important event in Albania has caused a new crisis that quickly spilled over into Kosovo, namely the Albanian civil war of 1997 that led to theft of large stock of weapons, accumulated during the Enver Hoxha era. Vast amounts of this weaponry were smuggled to Kosovo and Metohija, where the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was created as a new guerilla army. At the same time, the West pulled out their last card, calling for the right to self-determination.

The clashes in Kosovo were initiated in a classic way, with sporadic conflicts against the police, cross-border ambushes and militant groups crossing from Albania to the Yugoslav territory. The KLA took responsibility for the attacks targeting ethnic Serb villages, governmental buildings and police stations. In 1998, minor conflicts evolved into full-scale rebellion, principally in areas where Albanians were the ethnic majority. At this time, Albanian rebels numbered 30,000 people armed to the teeth, thus the Yugoslav Army began helping the police forces which did not have enough staff to suppress the rebellion.

In the summer of 1998, rebels were close to defeat, and Western media and diplomats began to threaten the Yugoslav government with military intervention if Belgrade not withdraw its elite units from Kosovo. The Kosovo Verification Mission of OSCE, led by US diplomat William Walker, was sent to Kosovo in order to negotiate a ceasefire and stop destruction of the KLA. This move was against the will of the people, considering voters on referendum held the same year decisively rejected foreign interference in the crisis, but it still shows the Yugoslavia’s willingness to cooperate for peace.

At this point, the conspirators came to the final phase of planned operation. The first was to create and arm aggressive rebel groups, the second to display them in mass media as the oppressed side, and the final stage was to opt the appropriate deception and use it as a pretext for military intervention, hence ending the last sovereign state in the region. The path of this operation depended on many factors and circumstances.

Alleged massacre as a final stage
After several months in Kosovo, the OSCE mission has managed to save the remaining KLA combatants from total destruction. Situation in the field was still not a good cause for direct military intervention, which is why the West was desperately seeking a cause that would change public opinion and give an excuse for the assault. In January 1999, the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Serbian Police carried out an operation against the KLA rebels in the village of Račak. US diplomat William Walker instantly urged Finnish forensic investigator Helena Ranta to publicly say that the rebels were actually civilians and were shot at close range. She did not have the courage to admit it in 1998, but in her 2008 autobiography Ranta wrote that she was under significant pressure.

In any case, already in the winter of 1998 it was decided that a full-sale military action would be launched, so Walker used this opportunity to move forward with such plans. The Yugoslav army was also aware of this, so months before the start of attack it was preparing to defend itself against airstrikes, and their vigilance saved many lives and equipment in the upcoming conflict. Additional evidence that the war was inevitable is the fact that US-led coalition started attack without the approval of the UN Security Council.

Aggression and miscalculation
On March 24, the US-led NATO started the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia by launching 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles against stationary facilities of the Yugoslav army and the police. The air defense did not react to the first assault. The NATO planners’ were thus convinced in fast destruction of the key targets in the manner of previous Desert Storm operation, and that the Yugoslav government would beg for ceasefire after a maximum of one week of conflict. Such assumptions proved to be completely wrong.

Only two days after the intervention has started, an American F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter was shot down by the Yugoslav air defense, which was a big humiliation for the United States. Besides that, the Yugoslav air force carried out the low-flying attack on the KLA bases in Albania, avoiding the US radar systems and damaging the enemy’s helicopter fleet. Due to their technological supremacy, the NATO forces succeeded against stationary targets, but against mobile units they experienced major failures that would be discovered only after the war.

Simultaneously with the NATO bombing, the KLA combatants supported by the NATO air forces and Albanian army attempted to invade an area around Košare on the border between FR Yugoslavia and Albania. The KLA sought to enter Kosovo and cut off of the communication routes of the Yugoslav Army, and also take over of the region of Metohija. However, the land operation ended in failure, with hundreds of dead and wounded. The KLA also penetrated a few kilometers into the south-western Mount Paštrik area, but again they suffered high casualties and most of the province remained under the Yugoslav control. These two battles have shown that the KLA is incapable of advancing regardless of the NATO aviation’s support.

Reasons for the US goals being achieved
The main reasons why the war did not end in Yugoslavia’s favor are the low NATO losses in aircraft (comparing to their resources), as well as the fact that the Yugoslav air defense was not able to protect its industrial capacities. In war prolonged, Yugoslavia would likely lose all of its military industry and therefore would not be able to resist any further. In total, NATO lost only two aircraft (or up to 61 according to the Yugoslav claims), but in both cases these losses were low.

On the other hand, the NATO aviation also experienced humiliation in terms of a small amount of destroyed equipment and killed soldiers in their air strikes. During the air campaign which lasted for 78 days, NATO killed 244 enemy soldiers in total, while several hundred others were killed in land operations against the KLA. Mobile targets have proven to be very complicated for destruction, as well as easy to camouflage. The same lesson was later learned by Israel during the 2006 Lebanon air attacks.

The Albanian KLA numbered thousands of dead and missing. Thousands of Serb civilians were also killed, but the worst consequences came after the war. The NATO bombing used between 10 and 15 tons of depleted uranium, which caused a major environmental disaster and affected thousands of civilians, especially in southern and central Serbia. Tens of victims of this war crime are also the NATO troops themselves.

Withdrawal and consequences
After losing only a single digit percentage of total equipment and repelling the ground attacks from Albania, the Yugoslav army withdrew from Kosovo in accordance with the Kumanovo agreement. The control over the region was officially taken by the UN, but soldiers were mostly from NATO countries. In addition to the Yugoslav army, more than 250,000 Serb civilians fled from Kosovo, fearing the retaliation by NATO troops and Albanian militants who were freely descending from mountains and forests into towns and villages. Finally, the Americans achieved their goals on 5th October 2000, when Milošević’s government was overthrown. The last Balkan country that stood against the US global hegemony was gone.

In the wider geopolitical context, Yugoslavia was strategically surrounded by all sides, which was not the first case in Serbian history. The Yugoslav army proved to be very capable in many spheres, but was unable to achieve a victory due to the air supremacy of NATO aviation. Until the Syrian War, NATO used the same model against its enemies, achieving victory exclusively by using air forces, and enemy’s military defeat would later turn into a political defeat. Certainly, without the regional alliances, small countries can not challenge the great powers for a longer period of time.