How the Kosovo Air War Foreshadowed the Crisis in Ukraine

March 4th, 2022 - by Masha Gessen / The New Yorker

Twenty-three years later, Kremlin propagandists
still use the NATO bombing campaign
to justify their own actions.

Masha Gessen / The New Yorker

(February 15, 2022) — For weeks, people in Ukraine, and some people in Russia, have been stuck in the purgatory of doublethink. On the one hand, the media — Western media in particular — bring daily bulletins of the buildup of Russian troops near the borders of Ukraine, and of intelligence warnings that a large-scale invasion is a real threat, and possibly imminent.

Western embassies evacuated diplomats’ families from Kyiv. Then they evacuated nonessential personnel. Then, over the weekend, the United States pulled its military trainers from Ukraine and directed US citizens to leave the country; on Monday, it moved its embassy operations from Kyiv to Lviv. The Dutch airline KLM discontinued flights to Kyiv.

On the other hand, the big war (as opposed to the shooting war in the east, which has continued to claim near-daily consequence for eight years) is unimaginable. Both the Ukrainian and Russian governments keep downplaying the probability of war and reprimanding for fanning the fear. A prominent Ukrainian think tank run by the former Defense Minister has issued two reports, three weeks apart, arguing that a successful large-scale Russian invasion is not yet feasible.

Everyone understands that the war would be both bloody and senseless — surely Russia doesn’t really want to occupy one of the poorest countries in Europe, inhabited by forty-four million people, most of whom have come to hate Russia. And in peacetime — even in fragile, relative peacetime — it’s always hard to imagine war.

In late January, I spent time in Ukraine with, among others, Nataliya Gumenyuk and Peter Ruzavin, a married couple. Gumenyuk is a leading Ukrainian journalist; Ruzavin is a Russian investigative journalist. One evening over dinner, Gumenyuk said, “It’s impossible to imagine air raids in Kyiv.” Before I could catch myself, I blurted out, “Like it was once impossible to imagine air raids of Belgrade.”

I was referring to the NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, which I covered on the ground; I was in Belgrade when the first bomb fell on the city and the unimaginable became real. Ruzavin was in grade school at the time, but he understood. “And that’s what they keep coming back to,” he said, meaning that, almost twenty-three years later, Kremlin propagandists still use the 1999 air war as a point of comparison and justification.

NATO’s 1991 War in Europe

On Tuesday, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, did come back to it. During a press conference that followed Putin’s talks with Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, a German journalist asked Putin, “Will there be a war in Europe? Can you rule out the possibility of a war in Europe?” Putin answered, “Mr. Chancellor just said that people of his generation (and I am a member of his generation) can hardly imagine any kind of war in Europe. . . . But you and I have witnessed a war in Europe, the war against Yugoslavia, which was unleashed, coincidentally, by NATO. It was a large-scale military operation that included air strikes against a European capital, Belgrade. That happened, didn’t it?”

On Saturday, Putin spoke to President Joe Biden on the phone, at Biden’s request, for over an hour. Afterward, Putin’s foreign-policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told that Putin had “given Biden a rundown of the relations between the US, Russia, and NATO.” Ushakov went on, “The Russian President noted, for example, that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States were total adversaries, but, say, in the nineteen-nineties we were kind of like friends, and even then the USA and NATO were not at all constructive in their relationship with Russia.”

A U-Turn over the Atlantic

On March 24, 1999, NATO, led by the United States, launched an air war aimed at forcing the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to put an end to anti-Albanian violence in the province of Kosovo and to withdraw Serbian military and police from the region.

The day the campaign started, Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Prime Minister at the time, was on his way to the US, hoping to win IMF loans and renegotiate the terms of billions of dollars in Soviet-era debt. He called Vice-President Al Gore en route to implore him to call off the air strikes. Three hours later, Gore called back to say that the strikes were inevitable and Russia didn’t have a say in the matter.

Primakov had his plane turned around over the Atlantic and returned to Moscow. Thus ended the era of coöperation and aspirational friendship between Russia and the US that had begun after the Cold War. Russians now remember the U-turn over the Atlantic as the first time that post-Soviet Russia asserted its right to be heard.

The seventy-eight-day air war over Kosovo and Serbia was unprecedented in several ways. It was undertaken without the sanction of the UN Security Council. It was framed, by the participating governments and much of the media, as a humanitarian intervention. (I am not alone in hearing that phrase as oxymoronic. I checked with Lawrence Douglas, a professor at Amherst College who has written extensively on law and war.

“‘War of humanitarian intervention’ is such a bizarre term that it can be used to justify any kind of aggression,” he said.) It was fought in a way that allowed no possibility of NATO Consequence: bomber planes initially flew above the ceiling at which they could be reached by Serbian anti-aircraft missiles. The altitude may explain several instances when NATO forces ended’s up striking civilians.

Anti-NATO protests on 20th anniversary of bombing of Belgrade.

NATO Bombing of Cities Seen as War Crimes

Before the bombing campaign had ended, Louise Arbor, then the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), appointed a group to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by the NATO allies.

The group documented several instances in which there had been multiple civil consequences: the Allies had bombed a passenger train, a refugee convoy, a village in Kosovo, and, in Belgrade, the Chinese embassy and the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia. (The first four appeared to have been mistakes, but the television tower was targeted as a source of Serbian propaganda.)

By the time the report was completed, Arbor had completed her term at the ICTY; Her successor, Carla Del Ponte, decided not to open a criminal investigation.

“There was no way Carla Del Ponte was going to bring charges against the very nations that were funding the ICTY,” Douglas said. “If she did, the US and Great Britain could have just pulled the plug on the tribunal.”

International law allows military action under two scenarios: if a nation or nations are acting in self-defense, or if they have the sanction of the UN Security Council. Yet some scholars have argued that the Kosovo air war was legal.

A paper published in parameters, the quarterly publication of the US Army War College, in 2000, proposed a sort of “natural law” justification for the war; a memo submitted to the British Parliament by a law professor at the London School of Economics argued, in effect, that the war was legitimate even in the absence of Security Council approval.

“You will still find a substantial number of legal scholars who will say, ‘We should recognize that international law is not a straitjacket,’” Douglas told me. “But if the law is only a recommendation, then it’s not law. ‘Laws apply to them but not to us’ is not the way a legal regime works. The air war in Kosovo made international law look like a farce. It applies only to the weak.”

Attack on Kosovo Seen as an Attack on Russia

Russia did not have a direct stake in Kosovo, aside from a vague, sentimental idea of affinity with the Serbs because they are, like Russians, Eastern Orthodox. (So are most Ukrainians, but that no longer seems to matter.) In Russian memory, however, the NATO war was an attack on Russia — because it showed that Russia no longer mattered.

That May, President Boris Yeltsin presided over the military parade in Red Square, a spectacle that had had a drastically lower profile since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, over the last twenty-plus years, the annual Victory Day parade has grown ever more grand and menacing, with tanks crowding the center of Moscow and fighter planes circling overhead for days leading up to it.

At the end of 1999, Vladimir Putin became President of Russia. His rise was not determined by the Kosovo air war, but he rode the wave of resurgent nationalism during it and has consistently drawn from a reservoir of resentment that was deepened by the war.

Putin’s protracted campaign of threatening Ukraine looks like a long-delayed tit-for-tat in response to the air war in Kosovo. Presidents and Prime Ministers are clamoring to speak to Putin — Emmanuel Macron flew to Moscow and sat with Putin for five hours; Biden asked Putin for a phone call on Saturday instead of the one they had scheduled for Monday; Scholz followed on Tuesday — and every conversation seems to reinforce the point that there is nothing anyone can do to stop him.

On Tuesday, the Russian parliament approved a resolution to ask Putin to recognize the statehood of the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a move that would make their status similar to that of Kosovo after the bombing campaign. Russian media maintain that Ukraine discriminates against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers; the more unhinged politicians and media personalities bandy about the word “genocide.”

Putin may imagine using the pretext of anti-Russian violence to launch a big war in Ukraine and show how lethargic and inefficient NATO really is, how fractured the European Union is, and how no one can protect Ukraine from Russia. To him, the price — economic collapse, untold loss of life, and Russia’s utter isolation from the Western world — just might seem worth it if it sets the course of history right.

In “The Impossible Country,” a wonderful 1994 book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the writer Brian Hall describes people who kept asking each other, “Can you believe this is happening? In Europe? In the twentieth century?” He writes, “Of all the centuries and all the continents to mention.” At the end of that century, the Kosovo air war showed that anything was still possible, including bombs falling in the center of a city where people had felt worldly and safe and couldn’t believe war could come for them, even after it had been near for a while.

If Putin ultimately stops entertaining Western negotiators and unleashes the big war, the death and misery that it will cause will be his responsibility.

But the world in which such a war is possible has been forged jointly by Russia and the United States, starting twenty-three years ago.

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