Even at the end of a war filled with surprises, Slobodan Milosevic found a way
to catch NATO off guard. On June 3, 1999 the Serbian president suddenly
accepted NATO's demands for ending the conflict over Kosovo. Milosevic's
turnabout, coming after more than ten weeks of uneven bombing, was as
unexpected as it was welcome. President Clinton and his advisors greeted the
announcement cautiously; for almost a week, dubious NATO commanders continued
to bomb until they hammered out the last details of the Serb withdrawal. Even
now, the enigmatic Milosevic's precise reasons for folding remains a puzzle.
Experts, however, point to a number of factors and theories to explain NATO's
Jim Mokhiber was an Associate Producer on FRONTLINE's documentary "War in Europe."
Many in the diplomatic community and beyond suggest that
Milosevic's decision to withdraw his troops from Kosovo stemmed from his
continuing inability to divide the NATO allies. During the war, the alliance
weathered disagreements over strategy and embarrassing -- sometimes tragic --
targeting mistakes. In late April, organizers toned down celebrations
scheduled for NATO's Fiftieth Anniversary summit in Washington. While
behind-the-scenes squabbling continued, by the end of the summit the allies had
agreed to intensify the war they could not afford to lose. From then on, even
major wartime errors, such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy on May 7,
failed to break NATO solidarity.
Late in the war, Serbia's diplomatic isolation mounted as Russia began
to cooperate with the NATO allies and abandon its blustery support for its
fellow Slavs. The change was dramatic. At the beginning of the war, Russian
Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov had turned his Washington-bound plane around in
mid-flight to signal his country's displeasure. Weeks of anti-NATO popular
protest and official posturing ensued in Russia. However on April 14, 1999,
Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin as his chief
Balkans envoy, signaling Russia's desire to chart a new Kosovo policy and to
salvage its essential relationship with the West. After a series of marathon
negotiations with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Chernomyrdin
and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari successfully presented NATO's demands to
Milosevic in Belgrade on June 3.
Air power advocates, including Lt. Gen. Michael Short, stress
NATO's decision to "go downtown" and attack strategic targets in Serbia and
central Belgrade. In contrast to NATO's Supreme Commander Wesley Clark, Short
has criticized "tank plinking" in Kosovo as wasted effort, comparable to the
meaningless "body counts" of the Vietnam War. Pilots, he contends, could not
stop ethnic cleansing on the ground below, and damage to Serbia'sThird Army in
Kosovo did not resonate with policymakers in Serbia proper. Only when NATO
sought to "go after the head of the snake," Short maintains, did the
implications of the war in Kosovo start to become clear to Milosevic and
average Serbs. Throughout the conflict however, political leaders in the NATO
alliance sought to rein in their military commanders, particularly after the
disastrous May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy. But by the end of May, NATO
bombers had won approval to strike hard at Serbia's infrastructure, including
its central power grid.
On March 24, 1999, while NATO prepared its bombers, President
Clinton announced that the United States would not send ground troops to fight
in the Balkans. As the air war dragged on with uncertain results, critics and
allies alike began to question the wisdom of the President's declaration and
position. In early May, NATO officials quietly began exploring ground invasion
options, and by the middle of May, the President was publicly noting that "no
options are off the table." The allies also began to reinforce key roads and
bolster forces deployed in Macedonia and Albania. After Milosevic
folded on June 3, administration officials let it be known that the President
had been on the brink of deciding whether to mobilize for a potential ground
war -- the implication being that the regime in Belgrade had just missed a NATO
bullet. How close the U.S. and NATO really were to such a deployment -- and
the almost certain casualties, political costs and diplomatic schisms such an
invasion would have entailed -- is uncertain. In the end, however, the threat
may have been real enough to push Milosevic to accept NATO's demands.
Some observers contend that a resurgence of the Kosovo Liberation Army
(KLA) in the latter phase of the war sharply increased the effectiveness of
NATO bombing. As military analyst Anthony Cordesman notes, the KLA
increasingly provided NATO with targeting information and flushed Serb troops
from their dispersed hiding places. For example, some have pointed to
NATO's B-52 bomber strike in early June against a concentration of Serb troops
battling the KLA on Mount Pastrik. Immediately afterward, allied military
officials suggested to reporters that the strikes had resulted in massive Serb
casualties and may have helped speed Serbia's withdrawal. Since the end of the
conflict, however, many analysts have challenged this assessment, noting that
the Mount Pastrik site offers little evidence of such extensive damage.
(Indeed, several analysts claim that it was the clearing of the Balkans' poor
weather, and not the KLA offensive, that increased the effectiveness of NATO's
bombs.) Nevertheless, NATO's demonstrated willingness to work in
conjunction with the KLA - despite U.S. officials' early assurances that the
alliance would never become "the KLA's air force" - may have unnerved
A minor but mysterious role may have been played by a campaign to
increase pressure on Milosevic's associates and family, including his
influential wife Mirjana Markovic. According to some reports, this secret
effort - allegedly dubbed "Operation Matrix" and run by diplomat and Balkans
expert Robert S. Gelbard - squeezed the Serbian power elite by limiting their
ability to leave the country and targeting their factories and other assets.
On Nov. 8, the WashingtonPost.com's military affairs columnist William Arkin
suggested that CIA "Matrix" planners were seeking to bomb a Serbian ministry
with ties to Milosevic's cronies when they mistakenly targeted the Chinese
Embassy on May 7. While NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark denies any
knowledge of "Operation Matrix," the Pentagon recently admitted employing
psychological and economic tactics that "raised the level of anxiety and
discontent within Belgrade's power circles."
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzenzinski suggests
that Serbia withdrew from Kosovo only after Russia made a secret deal with
Milosevic -- a "desperate double-cross" of NATO that would impose a de facto
partitioning of Kosovo into Serbian and Albanian spheres. According to
Brzezinski, the plan was hatched in late May and early June, at the supposed
height of Russian-NATO cooperation. On June 10 and 11, as NATO planned its
entrance into Kosovo, two hundred Russian soldiers dashed from their base in
Bosnia, through Serbia and into Kosovo, where they took up positions vacated by
the departing Serbs at the Pristina airport. Shocked NATO commanders,
including NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark and British Lt. Gen. Michael
Jackson, immediately began arguing about appropriate responses. In a phrase
later made famous, Jackson reportedly refused Clark's order for a vigorous
military riposte, saying "I won't start World War III for you." In the end,
Brzezinski writes, the Serbo-Russian gambit failed when Hungary, Bulgaria and
Romania refused to allow Russia to use their airspace to fly in reinforcements.
Their hand weakened, the Russians ultimately accepted NATO's refusal to give
them their own distinct peacekeeping sector in post-war Kosovo.
On May 24, 1999, Serb President Slobodan Milosevic became the
first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes in the midst of an
armed conflict. Along with four other high-ranking Serbian leaders, Milosevic
was accused of offenses including murder, deportation and persecution in
Kosovo. After the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
(ICTY) announced the indictment on May 27, many worried it would complicate the
search for a settlement. Prosecutor Judge Louise Arbour admitted as much when
she stated that the indictment raised "serious questions about [Milosevic and
his deputies's] suitability to be the guarantors of any deal, let alone a peace
agreement." Nevertheless, the following week, mediators representing the G-8
returned to Belgrade to continue their ultimately successful meetings with
Milosevic. Since the end of the war, some, including former British Secretary
of Defense George Robertson, have credited the indictment with adding to the
international pressure that led Milosevic to capitulate.
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