nato has established a Kosovo protectorate at the cost of great suffering for its people, and in a manner calculated to store up future problems. The bombing by nato generalized and greatly intensified the persecution of the Kosovans and destroyed infrastructure throughout Yugoslavia. There were thousands of civilian and refugee casualties and, despite the claims for precision weapons, many errors.

Some critics of the air war argue that a ground assault should have been mounted from the beginning. On this point, the nato high command had a more realistic grasp. The Serb army was well dug in and possessed thousands of rocket launchers, mortars and artillery pieces. While the ultimate outcome would never have been in doubt, the casualties would have been very high, civilian as well as military. No sane commander would prefer a contested entry in such circumstances, amongst some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable, to the prior destruction of the enemy’s hardware, supply dumps, communications and morale. Advocates of a ground assault might claim that it would have avoided sorties against civilian targets, the use of cluster bombs, and some of the errors. But the prior aerial bombardment had a perfect military logic, and it was the first week of bombing that precipitated the catastrophe, as hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes by enraged and murderous Serb soldiers and paramilitaries.

The disastrous air war was wrong not because there was another military option, but because, from the outset, a deal was available providing for the withdrawal of Serb forces, and their replacement by a un security force, but it foundered because it did not give nato the protectorate it wanted. The Yugoslav government was willing, under great pressure, to sign up to such a package after Rambouillet but refused to accept the military provisions of the Agreement. These provisions stipulated that the international security force would be nato-led, that it would have the right of inspection throughout the Yugoslav republic, and that its members would be exempt from responsibility for their actions before local courts. Moscow attacked this aspect of the Agreement and the Russian negotiator declined to be present when it was signed by the Kosovan delegation on 15 March. When news of the bombing came through, the Russian prime minister cancelled in mid-flight a visit to Washington. Milosevic was never going to accept an agreement rejected by the Russians, especially one which provided for a provocative expansion of nato’s sphere of operations. To do so would make him vulnerable to internal opponents. But, by the same token, a settlement supported by Russia would be very difficult for him to reject, even if it meant wholesale evacuation from Kosovo.

An item on the failed Rambouillet negotiations in the New York Times for 8 April, 1999 observed: ‘In a little-noted resolution of the Serbian Parliament just before the bombing, when that hardly independent body rejected nato troops in Kosovo, it also supported the idea of un forces to monitor a political settlement there.’ The Serbian delegation, under duress, had been willing to accept the principles of the Rambouillet package, save for the very detailed twenty-fifth chapter on the nato-led occupation force. When Milosevic made a deal at Dayton, he implemented it punctiliously, accepting the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from lands they had long inhabited. Even if implementation of a Kosovo deal had been more difficult, the relationship of forces, both in Kosovo and in the world, would have ensured compliance without the horrendous cost the war has entailed.footnote1

In late April and early May, a new round of diplomatic mediation, assisted by the governments of Russia and Finland, again foundered on nato insistence that the proposed security force should be built around a nato ‘core’. Following a meeting of the g8, the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, made it clear no agreement had been reached on this issue because Russia could not accept the transformation of Kosovo into a nato protectorate. The Western insistence on a controlling role for nato thus precluded a combined approach to Belgrade and doomed the prospects for a Security Council resolution on the question. This phase of negotiation was brought to an end by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, without the West having made any concession on nato’s role.

Of course, the willingness of Milosevic to strike a deal did not come from the goodness of his heart but because of his fear of nato striking power, his wish for an end to sanctions, and a craving for international respectability—precisely the motives which brought him to endorse the agreement at Dayton in 1995. It might be thought that the fear element in the Serbian leader’s motivation itself justifies the air assault. But this would only be the case if the bombardment produces a result for the Kosovans very much better than that already available at Rambouillet in February, and, after the exodus, that could scarcely be the case. The settlement eventually reached, notwithstanding a token Russian role, means that nato will have acquired a better strategic emplacement in the region, and the Kosovans will still have paid a heavy price.

The composition of the security force was the stumbling block in March and in early May because nato opposed any security force in Kosovo that it did not wholly control. In public, both sides were bound to overstate their position, but the composition of the security force was always the sticking point. At all times, the Russian stance was bound to be critical to Belgrade, not only because a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia would always find it easier to go along with Russian mediation, enforced with the help of Russian troops, or because Russia has the resources to help Yugoslavia with fuel, arms and diplomatic comfort, but also because any Belgrade government authorizing a nato protectorate in Kosovo would earn the enmity of Russia. Milosevic was always sure in the knowledge that all sectors of Russian opinion would oppose the conversion of Kosovo into a nato protectorate.