Initially modelled after Hitler’s rapid war-winning strategy, the NATO offensive was not expected to last more than three or four days before Yugoslavia folded. In the event, it lasted more than seventy days.
While March 24 passed largely unnoticed in the West, where it should have evoked enormous outpourings of shame and repentance, in Moscow it was remembered by Maria Zakharova who correctly called it “a forever stain on NATO’s reputation.” On that day in 1999, invoking as its the pretext the urgent need to protect from persecution Kosovo’s Albanian minority, the NATO alliance, under the coordinated leadership of major Western countries, began its Blitzkrieg against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Initially modelled after Hitler’s rapid war-winning strategy, the NATO offensive was not expected to last more than three or four days before Yugoslavia folded. In the event, it lasted more than seventy days, with a military and political ending in the field that was not among the brightest moments in NATO’s annals. In the final days of the unequal struggle to subdue a brave nation which had only a fraction of the aggressor’s resources to fight with, it was practically as if Hitler had been compelled to sue for peace from one of his intended victims. Other than being mindlessly destructive of civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, post offices, and bridges, and after killing several thousand civilians, the NATO offensive was getting precisely nowhere. Chastened by their full spectrum failure to dent Serbian ground defences, NATO generals repeatedly postponed and finally discarded the option of a ground invasion that in their probably correct estimate would have led to a politically unacceptable carnage of their troops.
What remained was to redouble the effort to vindictively and systematically, from the safe altitude of 30,000 feet, raze the victim country’s wherewithal for any semblance of civilized life. It was a practical application in the heart of Europe (not that it would have been justified anywhere else) of the neanderthal refrain of “free world” military planners that this or that country must either obey or be “bombed back to the stone age.” The neanderthals were, of course, safely ensconced in their Pentagon and Brussels offices while their acolytes were conducting murderous raids from heights that were largely unreachable for Yugoslavia’s air defences. The steady obliteration of Yugoslavia’s assets was taking its toll while the immense popular mobilization against barbarism that was taking place on the streets of Europe and America posed a severe political challenge to vassal European governments and began to strain the very fabric the NATO alliance.
In the end, NATO was ready for almost any sort of face-saving peace. Parallel to the intensification of bombing raids, it played its last card in the person of a corrupt Finnish politician, Martti Ahtisaari, who blustered President Slobodan Milosevic into adopting a more “flexible” stance by threatening to carpet bomb Belgrade, a clear war crime even if not actually enacted and used only as a tool of perverse neanderthal diplomacy. President Milosevic made the judgment call, rightly or wrongly, and decided in return for a badly needed respite to give the wicked alliance the face saver it needed by bringing its aggression to a close on something akin to “honourable” terms.
The political price for the cease fire that Yugoslavia exacted was formidable, at least in purely theoretical terms. It was UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which stipulated that the provinces of Kosovo and Metohija were inalienably Yugoslav (and with the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia, successor-state Serbia’s) territory and that under UN auspices NATO troops would be allowed to enter it only for the purpose of policing the peace and ensuring the safety of all ethnic groups residing there, pending a negotiated resolution of outstanding issues. Considering the gross disproportion in strength between the parties, for the Serbs that was on its face an epic moral and political victory even though NATO had not the slightest intention of honouring the terms of the agreement it signed. To rub it in, in plain view of the entire world the Serbian army withdrew from Kosovo virtually intact and in perfect order after over two months of bombardment which had almost entirely missed its target.
What remained, however, were tons of illegal toxic uranium munitions with a half-life of several million years to contaminate the soil and ruin the health of generations to come. But that was the predictable price of NATO “liberation.”
By far the most world-historical and plainly unintended consequence of NATO’s Kosovo adventure is what happened next, something that the Alliance and the Western political leadership will rue until their dying day. As noted in the Tweet of the Russian Embassy in Washington, “For the first time since WWII an aggression was committed against a sovereign European nation, an active participant in the anti-Hitler coalition, one of the UN founders.” The implications of these sombre facts did not pass without being thoroughly grasped in Moscow. In fact, they were firmly grasped and in real time by Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov who was on his way to Washington when the aggression started and immediately ordered his aeroplane, without further ado, to make a mid-Atlantic U-turn and return home. That sobering experience inaugurated a new era in geopolitics, further elaboration of this point being entirely unnecessary.
This writer, who in 2004 was seeing Mr. Primakov on another matter, upon the specific request of his mother and on behalf of the Serbian people, had the extraordinary honour of thanking the Russian statesman for his courageous and inspiring gesture which – now in retrospect we can confidently conclude – truly changed the world.