Wednesday, March 25, 2009

NATO's Serbia campaign, ten years later

Tuesday was the 10-year anniversary of a milestone event in world history since the end of the Cold War - the start of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia.

NATO launched the aerial campaign in 1999 after then-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic refused to halt military action against separatists in the Kosovo region, amid reports of atrocities committed by Serbian forces against the Kosovars. The European Union and United States were still smarting from allegations that the Western powers didn't do enough (really anything) to stop similar atrocities during Bosnia’s war for independence from Serbia in the mid-1990’s - in particular the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 ethnic Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces. Determined not to let history repeat itself, NATO organized and led a bombing campaign to compel Milosevic to stop Serbia’s Kosovo campaign.

Not surprisingly the Serbians view this whole thing a little differently. Russia Today did a half-hour special yesterday on their TV newscast (which is excerpted here) that focused on the Serbian side of the bombing campaign and its aftermath. The Serbians argue that the evidence of alleged atrocities committed by Serbs in Kosovo is flimsy and that NATO’s self-described “humanitarian intervention” actually killed 1,200 Serbian civilians (Western estimates put the civilian casualty toll at less than 500 Serbs).

Then there are the conspiracy theorists who speculate that NATO’s campaign was less about intervening on behalf of the Kosovars and more about completing a plot to dismantle Yugoslavia. The theory goes like this: that a strong, independent, socialist Yugoslavia stood in the way of the European Union’s expansion plans and that after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Western powers (namely the US, UK, France, and Germany) didn’t want Russia to have a strong ally in the strategically-important Balkan region of South Eastern Europe. So the West set about exploiting ethnic tensions to break up Yugoslavia, starting with Slovenia and Croatia, then Bosnia; the 1999 bombing campaign was the final act in ending Yugoslavia’s reign as a regional power.

While I’m not much for conspiracy theories, some questions remain from the 1999 campaign – like why a mission to stop military action in Kosovo focused so much on Serbia’s capital Belgrade, where factories, government agencies and bridges were all primary targets of the bombing campaign and the cause of many of the civilian casualties. It is also odd how quickly the Kosovo Liberation Army (the main insurgent group in Kosovo) was adopted as a band of brave ‘freedom fighters’ by the West after only a few years earlier being identified by most Western governments (particularly by the United States) as a ‘terrorist organization’, one likely with ties to al-Qaeda.

Whether or not the grand conspiracy existed, its stated results did come to pass. The 1999 NATO campaign did bring the end of the last vestiges of Yugoslavia – the last two former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Montenegro would split in 2006, and Kosovo would declare its independence from Serbia in 2008. Slobodan Milosevic would die in jail in The Hague while on trial for war crimes; Serbia meanwhile is now on the path for EU membership.

One lasting, and overlooked, effect of the campaign was the souring of NATO-Russian relations. Throughout the 1990’s Russia’s fears of their old Soviet-era military nemesis’ eastward expansion were played off, particularly by Pres. Bill Clinton, with the explanation that NATO was “strictly a defensive alliance”, and Russia didn’t have any plans to attack, right? So then there was nothing for Russia to worry about from NATO. But then in 1999, for the first time in its history, NATO went on the offense – bombing Serbia on behalf of Kosovo (neither of which was a NATO member). The whole “defensive alliance” idea went out the window.

Think about that next time you read about Russia’s complaints about bringing their neighbors Ukraine or Georgia into the NATO fold.
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1 comment:

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