Russia, NATO, and The Yugoslav Wars


by Richard Weitz

In March 1999 NATO bombed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

NATO claimed that the Yugoslav Security Forces were responsible for crimes against humanity and human rights abuse and cited these as their reasons for intervention. The bombing shocked Russia since it devalued Russia’s veto right as NATO used force without the express sanction of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept justifies Alliance intervention anywhere in Europe to uphold stability and human rights.

This raised suspicions with Russia as to where NATO may intervene next.

Meanwhile, Western views of Russia continued to deteriorate further when the Russian Federation launched the Second Chechen War in August 1999. When the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade invaded Dagestan, Russian troops entered Chechnya and restored Russian federal control over the territory.  Russians defended their actions as justifiable and noted that NATO’s military actions in Kosovo and Serbia, which also led to the deaths of innocent civilians. However, NATO countries believed that Russia had exceeded the acceptable limits in the use of force and NATO-Russia relations weakened.

The civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, which lasted during much of the 1990s, caused great consternation within European capitals, leading some analysts to look fondly on the enforced stability of the Cold War.

The arrival of Russian troops for peacekeeping in Kosovo. Credit:

Rather than usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, the Cold War’s demise appeared to mark a reemergence of brutal inter- and intra-state conflicts on the European continent. The inability of Europe’s leaders to end the fighting in the former Yugoslavia exposed the continued weaknesses of European institutions to ensure stability on the continent.

Unable to avert wars and human rights abuses in the ethnically divided region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, European governments turned again to NATO and its all-important transatlantic dimension.

Although NATO proved more effective than the EU or the United Nations in containing the fighting, the alliance’s relations with Russia became strained since Moscow was allied with the target of NATO military threats, the Serb nationalists. The alliance supported the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims against the “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosnian Serbs, who enjoyed the backing of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Russia was unable to prevent these NATO actions, which contributed to the realization of a successful settlement at the Dayton conference in 1995, which officially ended the Bosnian Civil War.

Even so, the Yeltsin government appeared reconciled after it was granted a role in the resulting peacekeeping operation, though in close cooperation with the U.S. military rather than as part of the NATO-led peace enforcement operation.

Russian peacekeepers first sent troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the Implementation Force (IFOR), which was later replaced by a smaller Stabilization Force (SFOR) in January 1996.

These deployments helped secure a ceasefire between the combatants as well as confirmed Moscow’s continuing role in European security issues. For several years, American and over 1,300 Russian soldiers in northern Bosnia undertook joint patrols, security checks, police actions, and mine clearance missions. They also assisted with civil reconstruction and other humanitarian tasks such as the repatriation of refugees and jointly ran Pristina airfield with a NATO contingent.

The parties created an innovative command arrangement in which the head of Russia’s IFOR/SFOR contingent reported as a Special Deputy to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) in his capacity as Commander, U.S. European Command. The leader of the Russian brigade in Bosnia came under the tactical control for day-to-day operations of the American General in charge of Multinational Division North.

By the time the crisis in Kosovo escalated in 1999, however, inducing the Yeltsin government to accept NATO military action against its local allies proved much harder.

Since 1974, Kosovo had been a fully-fledged autonomous province within Serbia, one of the republics that comprised the socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. In 1990, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy. He also significantly reduced the cultural rights of the province’s Albanian majority. By the late 1990s, Milosevic’s oppressive policies radicalized the Kosovo Liberation Army, which initially started as a peaceful resistance movement of Kosovar Albanians. The continuous military and financial support from Albanian Diaspora strengthened the KLA, enabling its fighters to retaliate against Serbian police attacks and launch offensives of their own. As civilian and military losses on both sides grew, accompanied by massive population displacement, this conflict in the center of Europe threatened to spill beyond Kosovo’s borders.

Since 1992, Russia has been part of what is known as the Balkans Contact Group, which also includes United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy. All of these nations have a stake in security in the Balkans, due to their geographic proximity as well as economic and geo-strategic interests in the region. However, as the war ravaged Kosovo, the group members were debating the ways to bring peace to the province. While the United States and the United Kingdom felt that placing international military and civil monitors in Kosovo would help stop interethnic atrocities, the Russian government characterized Kosovo as a domestic matter for Serbia.

Many observers believe that Moscow opposed international intervention in Kosovo out of fear that it would set a precedent for Russia’s own Chechen separatists. Moscow also blocked efforts to sanction Serbia within the United Nations. The EU and the United States adopted unilateral sanctions such as moratorium on export credits, ban on oil sales, and denial of travel visas for senior Serbian officials.

After months of negotiations backstopped by threats of NATO military intervention, in March 1999 alliance leaders launched a 78-day air campaign, Operation Allied Force, against the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then almost entirely under Serbian control.

The decision followed NATO’s determination that Serb authorities, led by President Milosevic and his Serbian nationalist allies, were largely responsible for the preceding year of vicious fighting within the province. NATO also resolved to employ force only after international diplomatic interventions—including two rounds of broad international talks held in Rambouillet, France, in February and March 1999—failed to resolve the conflict by peaceful means. Many NATO leaders appeared to feel guilty about not intervening sufficiently early in the Bosnian civil war, a delay that allowed the Serbs to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims.

The Yeltsin administration decided to launch a mediation effort aimed at ending the conflict by persuading Milosevic to accept NATO’s demand that Serb troops withdraw and allow NATO forces to occupy Kosovo, which represented some 15% of Serbian territory.

Moscow carried unique weight in Belgrade as Serbia’s most important foreign ally. This intervention, combined with the NATO-Russian agreement that Russian troops could participate in the occupation and the increasingly effective NATO bombing campaign against targets in Serbia, succeeded in persuading the Serbian military to withdraw from Kosovo and permit a NATO occupation force, joined by Russian peacekeepers under separate command, to administer the territory.

At the time the conflict ended, the international community decided to postpone the divisive question of Kosovo’s independence until tempers had cooled. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which ended the fighting, defined Kosovo as a UN protectorate under the administration of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. Yet, the resolution also allowed for locally based provisional institutions of self-government and affirmed that Kosovo was an autonomous political entity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, legally succeeded by the Republic of Serbia.

The Russian military subsequently provided the largest non-NATO contingent (approximately 1,500 troops) to the UN-mandated, NATO-led peacekeeping forces there.

Among other tasks, the Russian contingent exercised joint responsibility with NATO forces for running Pristina airfield and provided medical services in Kosovo Polje. In the summer of 2003, however, Moscow withdrew its forces from both Bosnia and Kosovo out of frustration over its lack of influence in the operation, NATO’s perceived discrimination against ethnic Serbs, and the belief that Russia could better use the troops elsewhere.