Serbian capitulation was the result of a partition manoeuvre that went wrongby Zbigniew Brzezinski / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
The unresolved mystery of the Kosovo crisis is why Milosevic capitulated. Several interpretations have been advanced, but none can explain why the 79-day air campaign suddenly produced the white flag in Belgrade. The principal explanations can be summarised as follows.
Version one (favoured by Nato): Nato, the military victor. Milosevic gave in because Nato bombing finally became more effective, especially after the KLA drew the Serbian military out of their positions. The problem with this claim is that it is now clear that the Serb army withdrew from Kosovo in relatively good condition, having suffered few of Nato’s claimed losses.
Version two (the Nato fall-back position): Nato, the strategic victor. Milosevic gave in because Nato bombing of the Serbian economic infrastructure finally became painful. It may have become more painful but the bombing had not cracked Serb civilian or military morale, and the Serb army seemed willing to wait until Nato gathered the courage to engage in ground combat, at which point it was hoping to inflict politically damaging casualties. Milosevic is not a sentimentalist, so it is doubtful that the limited economic discomfort of his people was decisive.
Version three (favoured by the White House): Nato, the relentless warrior. Milosevic gave in because he realised that Nato was quietly gearing up for a ground campaign, with the US president gradually accepting its necessity. The problem with this version is that any Nato preparations for ground warfare were, in fact, minimal at the time of Milosevic’s capitulation. Moreover, it is far from clear that the US leadership would have mustered the courage to undertake a bloody ground operation.
Version four (favoured by the US State Department): Nato, the political success. Milosevic gave in because he finally realised that Nato would stick together and persist in the bombing, no matter what. There is doubtless an element of truth in this, but it still does not explain why Milosevic gave in so one-sidedly and so suddenly. Serb public passivity and the good condition of his army were still assets.
Version five (favoured by those who always see Russia as helpful): Russia as Nato’s saviour. Milosevic gave in because Russia, on 3rd June-having strongly supported him-suddenly opted for the west, leaving Belgrade isolated. That explanation, endorsed by Michael Jackson, the British commander, among others, seems plausible. But it does not explain what Russia was trying to achieve when it seemed to embrace the west’s demand for Milosevic’s withdrawal from Kosovo (even beyond the formula previously demanded by Nato), or why Milosevic suddenly became so accommodating.
The answer is found in a careful analysis of Moscow’s reactions to the crisis, and particularly in the Kremlin’s bizarre conduct from 2nd-12th June. Russia’s Kosovo policy initially involved an instinctive solidarity with Milosevic, denunciations of Nato’s bombing, and promises of support for the Serbs. When the strikes began, Russia sought UN condemnation and tried to split off the Germans with a pro-Serb peace proposal.
There were persistent rumours that during this initial phase a “volunteer” Russian contingent went to Serbia to fight. Western intelligence sources also reported that some Russian military equipment was delivered to the Serbs.
The second phase came when the Kremlin realised that Nato would not split or quit. Russia then sought to be part of the west’s decision-making process. The avenues were the G8 foreign ministers meetings, and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s attempts to convince Nato to soften its demands in pursuit of a political solution. By late May this became a two-headed effort, with Chernomyrdin and the Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari representing the G8 in discussion with Milosevic.
On 27th May, Chernomyrdin wrote a hysterical piece in the Washington Post. In it he asserted that “the US lost its moral right to be regarded as the leader of the free democratic world when its bombs shattered the ideals of liberty and democracy in Yugoslavia,” and warned that he would urge President Yeltsin to freeze US-Russian relations unless the bombing stopped. The next day he met with Milosevic alone.
Within days, the third and critical phase in Russian policy began. Two days after his outburst, Chernomyrdin suddenly let it be known that he was pleased by his discussions with Milosevic. On 2nd June, Russian television reported that Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin “have brought… two different plans to Belgrade,” and then added that “Moscow is… talking about a virtual partition of Kosovo,” with “a Russian contingent” in control of northeast Kosovo. The very next day, 3rd June, Milosevic accepted Nato’s demand for the withdrawal of all Serb forces, while Chernomyrdin told Russian television that “at Yugoslavia’s special request, Russia will also be represented” in the occupying peace-keeping force.
On 4th June, the Russian foreign and defence ministers held a closed meeting with the Duma to reassure it that Yugoslavia had not been betrayed. On 5th June, Russian officers did not appear at the first scheduled encounter between Nato and Serb officers, held to coordinate the Serb withdrawal. Between 5th-7th June, Serb officers continued to stall in the negotiations, and on 10th June Nato agreed to a delay in the Serb withdrawal.
On the same day a Russian contingent left its positions in Bosnia, and moved towards Kosovo. Russia reassured the US vice-president that its troops would not enter Kosovo. The White House, always trustful, then blocked the Nato plan to execute a pre-emptive seizure of Pristina. On 12th June at 1:30am the Russian forces entered Pristina and took up defensive positions at the airport, barring the later-arriving Nato forces.
The Moskovsky Komsomolets (14th June) tells the rest of the story. Crowing over Moscow’s coup, it reported that 2,500 Russian paratroopers were ready to be flown into Pristina and that it had already been decided that Russia would have its own sector. It noted that Hungary had denied Russia its airspace, “but this is not a problem… our planes could make a detour-from the Russian coast over the Black sea and Bulgaria then straight to Kosovo.”
Alas for the Kremlin, it did not turn out like that. Not only Hungary, but Bulgaria and Romania also refused access to their airspace and Moscow decided that it could not risk having its air transports forced down. As a result, the Russians in Pristina were left stranded. And the Serbian forces, already in full retreat on exposed roads, could not reverse without enormous vulnerability to resumed air attacks. Although for a week the Kremlin continued to insist on a separate sector, on 18th June Russia reluctantly agreed to have its troops dispersed within the French, US and German zones.
It thus seems that Milosevic’s acquiescence was part of a desperate double-cross manoeuvre. Russia contrived to outwit Nato by salvaging northeast Kosovo for Serbia and gaining a boost in prestige for itself. The attempt failed because three small European countries had the gumption to defy Moscow, while Nato remained firm in not agreeing to a separate Russian sector. After the conflict, Clinton praised the Kremlin for its helpful role.