What Putin learnt from NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo

  • Themes: Russia

Putin took a clear lesson from NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia. His opponents' failure to understand this stunted their ability to plan for Putin’s most recent invasion.

Kosovo bombings
A bombed Kosovan village, 1999. Credit: marietta amarcord / Wikimedia Commons

A few years after the 1999 Kosovo War, I was en route to the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York aboard the same plane as the then UK Foreign Secretary. We knew each other, and over coffee fell into conversation about the conflict and Russia’s view of it. President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought memories of the conversation back and the connection between the Ukraine and Kosovo wars.

This year’s invasion was a long time in the making.

On the plane, I ventured that Moscow had still not got over the humiliation of NATO’s bombing of Serbia for 78 days and were looking for an opportunity to reassert themselves. ‘Oh, don’t worry Tim, the Russians didn’t care about Kosovo,’ came the response, ‘and anyway they’re in no position to do anything about it’.

The second part of the response was at the time more or less true, but the first left me more than surprised. Perhaps I should have said what I was thinking — ‘Who on earth is telling you this rubbish?!’. Foreign Secretaries come and go, one year they are in the Foreign Office, the next perhaps in the Treasury. Some master their subject, others do not, but all are reliant on the advice they are given by the permanent staff based in King Charles Street. The civil servants there are among the brightest and the best, but if the Foreign Secretary’s advice came from one of them, they were both having a very bad day.

Putin is on record as believing that the collapse of the Soviet Union was among the greatest catastrophes of the twentieth century. This is not because he is a communist, but because he is, among other things, a Russian nationalist determined to recreate the Russian Empire.

During the Kosovo War he was head of Russia’s influential Security Council in President Yeltsin’s government. Serbia was Russia’s ally; indeed, it still is – Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Serbia’s President Vucic on his re-election this month. 

The NATO powers justified bombing Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo, by saying it was a one-off event in which they had to stop the murders and ethnic cleansing of Kosovars. The hierarchy in Moscow believed the bombing was illegal, that Russia was still a great power, but that it was being disrespected in its own back yard. However, up until almost the last day of the conflict, there was nothing they could do.

But then on June 10, Serb forces began to withdraw from Kosovo as NATO troops prepared to arrive. The Kremlin then ordered a battalion of about 200 Russian soldiers in 30 armoured vehicles to leave their barracks in Bosnia and get to Kosovo ahead of NATO. It is thought Putin was one of the officials in favour of the move.

They made it and beat NATO to the main airport. I was in the Kosovan capital (Pristina) as the column moved through the city centre at 01.30 on the morning of the 11th of June and filed a report saying, ‘The Russians rolled down Main Street and back onto the world stage’. It was the moment when the Russian tide, which had been going out since the collapse of the Soviet Union, began to come back in.

NATO’s military commander General Wesley Clark ordered British General Michael Jackson to occupy the airport and shoot the Russians if they resisted. His reply has gone down in history: ‘Sir, I’m not starting World War III for you’. 

The Russians eventually became part of the peacekeeping mission and stayed in Kosovo until 2003. They had made themselves players again through force of arms. The NATO countries saw the move as dangerous brinksmanship; Putin saw an operation that partially worked and almost worked much better. Moscow had asked its former client states Hungary and Ukraine for overflight permissions that night but had been refused. The Kremlin did not say that the flight would be full of paratroopers heading to Pristina, but Budapest and Kyiv had made the connection.

The lesson Putin learned was that if he could make Russia a player using 200 men, he could make it a winner with the whole might of the Russian military and that the powers to his west did not have the stomach to stand in his way.

In February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia and was backed by most of the EU countries and the USA. Putin argued that this set a precedent — NATO had gone in to ‘protect lives’ and then supported independence. Six months later he invaded Georgia ostensibly to protect Russian speaking minorities. He went on to recognise the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.

Putin uses this ‘Kosovo Precedent’ to argue Russia’s case in Ukraine. After invading Crimea in 2014 Moscow organised an independence referendum. The document formally declaring the subsequent independence from Ukraine mentions the Kosovo story as part of a legal justification to secede. Similar arguments are made about the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic in the parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region which were de facto occupied by Russia before February’s invasion.

Citing Kosovo as justification for a ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine is attractive to the hardmen in the Kremlin because it allows them to pursue the moral argument state-controlled media sells the Russian public every day. However, it does not stand up to scrutiny, and when repeated by Putin’s apologists outside of Russia contributes to the attempted whitewashing of war crimes.

NATO’s intervention in Serbia followed a decade of state sponsored slaughter and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans the majority of which was conducted by the regime in Serbia led by Slobodan Milosevic. Thousands of Kosovan Albanians had been murdered in the run up to the conflict and hundreds of thousands displaced. It is worth noting for balance that Kosovan forces also committed war crimes and terror acts against Serb civilians, albeit far fewer.

Most NATO countries had spent the 1990s trying not to get drawn into the Balkan conflicts. Regime change was not an aim of the NATO powers during the Kosovo War. France, Germany and the UK had no intention of making Kosovo part of France, Germany, or the UK. NATO’s ground forces did not engage in mass killings of civilians in Kosovo nor mass deportations to another country.

Russian troops have invaded a sovereign country which posed no military threat to it whatsoever. There had been no systematic and widespread war crimes against Russian speakers in Ukraine in the run up to February’s invasion. The Russian justification that they needed to ‘denazify’ Ukraine is based on isolated examples of pro-Nazi sentiment and one abhorrent militia. There is no evidence that Ukraine’s government is ‘genocidal’ as argued by Moscow. Putin’s long-term plan seems to have been that Ukraine would become part of Russia.

The ‘Kosovo Precedent’ for the invasion is morethe ‘Kosovo Pretext.’ However, governments in many countries should have better understood what Putin took from Kosovo and prepared for what was coming.


Tim Marshall