Turning Point

Ten years ago today, on March 24, 1999, the Atlantic Empire chose to reveal itself to the world by demonstrating the unchecked power of a fully operational military alliance. After fifty years of keeping "the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down" (in the words of its first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay), NATO stepped over its charter, the UN charter, and international law, and asserted the right to do as it pleased. The short, victorious war was supposed to awe the world into submission.

As the target of this demonstration, Washington chose Serbia, the only Balkans country that had not yet elected a pliant client regime (it was still called Yugoslavia then, and included Montenegro, which did have a client regime). It hardly mattered that President Milosevic had helped Washington create a desert called peace in Bosnia and Croatia just a few years earlier. However willing to compromise Milosevic may have been, he maintained a stubborn insistence on laws and rules, and clung to a concept of sovereignty that the self-styled Empire considered ridiculous and outdated. For his presumption to be an equal of his Imperial overlords, Milosevic had to be punished.

It was certainly convenient that Serbia and the Serbs had already been thoroughly demonized by that point as "aggressors" and genocidal murderers, based on myths created during the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia.

Setting the Stage

The Empire also had the perfect proxy: the "Kosovo Liberation Army." Trained first by the Germans and then by the CIA, this terrorist organization was the latest incarnation of an Albanian movement that has sought the creation of an "ethnic Albania" since 1878 or so. Proponents of this project claim not only the Serbian province of Kosovo, but also parts of Montenegro, northwestern Greece, and a chunk of Macedonia.

Aided by William Walker, head of the OSCE "observer" mission in the province, the KLA staged a "massacre" in January 1999, which NATO rushed to declare an atrocity despite forensic findings to the contrary. Then the U.S. recognized the KLA as the only legitimate representative of the Albanians, provided "advisers" to them, and staged sham negotiations at a French chateau, where they offered an impossible ultimatum to Serbia: "Let NATO occupy Kosovo and have free access to the rest of Serbia, and after 3 years give the Albanians independence. Or else."

The ultimatum was purposefully worded to be rejected. No sane ruler of any country in the world would have agreed to it. The fact that it was presented to Serbia, which had faced just such an ultimatum from Austria-Hungary in 1914 (losing a third of its population in the ensuing Great War), was just another calculated insult.

During the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, NATO had gradually arrogated itself more and more authority, at first as the enforcer of UN resolutions with a severely limited mandate, but by the end of the war acting overtly and on its own. When the Dayton peace agreement was signed, authorizing a NATO peacekeeping force to replace the UN one, most of the troops already deployed in Bosnia simply swapped out their hats. They had been UN peacekeepers in name only.

With precedents thus set, proxies armed and primed, the public opinion properly inflamed, the diplomatic "niceties" dispensed with, and the Alliance poised to crush a country that had no way of resisting – let alone striking back – everything was in place for a quick, effective demonstration of power.

Operation Embarrassment

It didn’t quite work out that way. Defying the expectations that they would surrender within days, the Serbs resisted. They shot down dozens of missiles and drones, and at least two aircraft, one of them the famous F-117A. Serbian sources claim that the Yugoslav air force, flying obsolete strike jets, wrecked the Apache helicopter base at Tirana’s Rinas airfield. Whether that’s true or not, the fact remains the Apaches never flew a single combat mission in the war, and several were lost to mysterious "crashes."

Ingenious camouflage and improvised decoys also fooled most NATO "smart bombs." After 78 days of the bombing, most Yugoslav Army units emerged intact, with minimal losses in men and vehicles.

The civilians were not so lucky. Contradicting its stated objective of "degrading" Serbia’s military capabilities, NATO bombers went after bridges, railroads, buses, hospitals, marketplaces, water and power supply, and industry nodes. Even the Albanians – whom NATO was supposedly protecting – found themselves targeted, as at least two columns of refugees were struck. One of them was moving back from the Albanian border, defying KLA calls for a mass exodus from the province. If it was intended as a message, it definitely got through: tens of thousands of Albanians streamed across the border to Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.

The exodus came at a perfect time for NATO; its original excuse of trying to impose the Rambouillet ultimatum was paper-thin to begin with, and completely unsuitable for a lengthy war. With Serbia resisting, the propaganda engines went into overdrive, spinning atrocity stories unheard since Bosnia. The exodus was transformed into deliberate, systematic Serb "ethnic cleansing," and there were claims of a 100,000 Albanian men missing, presumed dead.

German intelligence even claimed to have discovered a secret Serb plan to expel the Albanians: "Operation Horseshoe." The only slight problem with it was that it was fiction. Whoever put the forgery together tried to be a little too clever, and used a Croatian word for horseshoe (potkova) as opposed to the Serbian (potkovica). By then, however, the dogs of lies had been unleashed: the media went into a frenzy looking for stories of Serb atrocities, which the KLA was all too eager to provide. After the war, there were no traces of mass executions, or genocide. The whole matter was quietly dropped, with the media repeating a fictitious number of "10,000 dead Albanian civilians." And that was that.

Ashes of Victory

For 78 days, NATO bombed, while the KLA tried to beat the Yugoslav Army on the ground. Both failed miserably. Then NATO escalated the terror-bombing of civilians, while its envoy to Serbia, Martti Ahtisaari, threatened total war if Belgrade did not accept a proposal that would let NATO occupy Kosovo – but with UN approval, and with Serbian sovereignty intact, at least on paper. President Milosevic looked to Moscow for support. He got none. So in June 1999 the Yugoslav troops pulled out of the province in good order, and NATO troops marched in.

With them came the KLA. For weeks, Kosovo was in flames, as "liberators" killed, maimed, raped, beat and robbed the Serbs, Roma, Turks, Jews, and even other Albanians who would not support them. Over 200,000 people were ethnically cleansed from the occupied province. Hundreds of Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries, chapels and cemeteries were destroyed, burned, desecrated, dynamited… And all the while, NATO "peacekeepers" watched.

The terror – dismissed by the cheerleader media as "revenge attacks" – continued for months, then years, reaching a frenzied peak in 2004. Eventually, the Empire appointed the very same Ahtisaari to "mediate" the new "negotiations" over Kosovo’s future. Not surprisingly, the "solution" he offered in 2007 was independence. Though it was shot down at the UN, in February 2008 the Albanians decided to implement it anyway. Their "Republic of Kosovo" is today recognized mainly by NATO countries and U.S. client regimes, 56 as of last count.

By that time, Milosevic was long gone; deposed in October 2000 by a U.S.-organized and funded opposition coalition, he was sent to The Hague in 2001, and died there under mysterious circumstances in March 2006, before his show trial could be concluded. Washington finally had its quisling regime in Serbia – but the Empire continued to curbstomp the country from time to time. It was convenient.


From the Empire’s standpoint, Kosovo was a triumph. It may not have gone smoothly as everyone had anticipated, but at the end of the day, Serbia lay in ruins, Albanians had Kosovo, and who cared about some damned pieces of paper at the UN that said otherwise? Except that pummeling Serbia didn’t really achieve the desired effect; instead of making the world quake in fear of the Empire, this equivalent of public rape inspired resistance and resentment.

One of the targets hit in 1999 was the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. China may have accepted the American apology, disingenuous though it was, but it has certainly not forgotten – or forgiven. In Russia, the war was definitely a turning point; by the end of 1999, American crony Boris Yeltsin was out of power, replaced by Vladimir Putin.

The evil little war of 1999 paved the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But NATO refused to march in lockstep with Washington, and the Mesopotamian operation was mainly an American affair. Kosovo demonstrated that NATO was a paper tiger; U.S. forces did most of the work, as European militaries were incapable of fighting on their own. Just ten years after its "triumph," NATO found itself becoming as irrelevant as the UN.

With the financial crisis of 2008, the Empire may have begun unraveling, a mere decade after it asserted the Brezhnev-like "right" to bomb anyone, anywhere, on any pretext, because it could. Whatever happens to it eventually (though there really isn’t much doubt), we ought to remember how it all began.

As for Kosovo and Serbia… that story isn’t over yet.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.