Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fourth Report


Did NATO believe that Milosevic would back down after a short campaign?

106.  General Mike Short, NATO Air Commander during the military campaign, has said that "I had been told, I can't tell you how many times: you're only going to be allowed to bomb two maybe three nights—that's all Washington can stand, that's all some members of the alliance can stand...this'll be over in three nights."[253] Professor Roberts, on the basis of personal interviews in the USA, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, has written that the "illusion" that "Belgrade would be likely to give in after a short period, perhaps only a few days, of bombing...appears to have been widely held in NATO headquarters and national capitals."[254] Dame Pauline Neville-Jones told us that on the basis of evidence "from my own conversations with NATO ambassadors, I do not think they believed they were going to have to bomb for long."[255]

107.  The Foreign Secretary vehemently rejected the idea that he shared this general optimism, telling us that this was "certainly never my view."[256] He went on to say that "when we announced the conflict Mr Blair could not have been more frank, he said, this will be tough and we are prepared to see it out for as long as it takes."[257] The Prime Minister indeed warned the House that "the potential consequences of military action are serious, both for NATO forces and for the forces of the region,"[258] and said in a national broadcast on 26 March, that "it will be tough. But now that we have begun, I ask your support in seeing it through."[259] Once the campaign was well under way, the Prime Minister was very clear that "this will go on until it is successful."[260] It was not notable, however, that, at the outset, public opinion was being prepared for a long campaign.

108.  On another occasion, the Foreign Secretary told us that: "there was always the possibility that, once he discovered that we were willing to take military action and were for real, he might then be willing to make concessions to the peace process that he had hitherto not been able to do. We did not expect that and we did not plan for that possibility."[261] Sir John Goulden was a little more explicit about the fact that many people in official circles were optimistic at the start of the campaign. He told us that "there were a lot of people in all the capitals, who wondered whether it might be possible to get Milosevic to blink before using force or after just using a small amount."[262] He went on to explain that there were "two theses. One was if you make the threat really credible, lots of aircraft, lots of exercises, lots of noise, he will give in just before you start to use it, as indeed he had once or twice during the Bosnian crisis and other crises. The second thesis was that just a few bombings and he would then be able to turn to the really hard line people or to his public and say 'look, we do not want more of this, let us give in.' A lot of people in NATO thought that, just as a lot of people in London and people in Paris and people in other countries, the media thought it too."[263] It is reasonable to take "London" in this context to mean "official circles"—although clearly these circles did not include the Foreign Secretary, as he has told us that this was "never his view."

109.  The idea that Milosevic would quickly back down was based on the assumption that he would make the same logical calculation as NATO's leaders—in other words, that he would not appreciate seeing his country and people bombed. As we discuss above, this was not perhaps a reasonable assumption about Milosevic's character.[264] And it also failed to take account of the importance of Kosovo to Milosevic, given its role in his rise to power.[265] But the issue went wider than Milosevic: Professor Roberts argues that the issue was "the mentality of many Serbs" whose "view of their place in the world, according to which Serbia faced off the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century and the Austrians in the First World War, and Yugoslavia stood alone against Hitler in 1941 and Stalin in 1948-53" meant that they were "never likely to make a simple cost-benefit analysis of bombing."[266]

110.  Another reason for the optimism of some of NATO's leaders was the perceived success of the bombing campaign at the end of the Bosnian war. However, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones argues that "bombing played a part, but only a part and possibly not the most significant part in bringing about Serb willingness to negotiate at Dayton."[267] Croatian and Bosnian ground forces also played an important role in Bosnia. Misha Glenny even argues that Milosevic wanted the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs "to go ahead so that he might be relieved of the responsibility of bringing the Bosnian Serbs into line."[268]

111.  The consequences of the excessive optimism of NATO's leaders were that NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia began slowly (by the time of the suspension of the campaign on 10 June, Operation Allied Force had 912 aircraft and 35 ships, almost triple the forces in place at the beginning of the campaign),[269] and that public opinion in NATO countries was unprepared for a long campaign. A distinction can be drawn here between, on the one hand, optimism that Milosevic would quickly back down, and on the other, the political will of some members of NATO to sustain a bombing campaign—although in practice these points merge, because NATO's leaders had to believe that a short bombing campaign would work as they had ruled out any alternative approach.[270] In short, NATO's leaders were in denial. We conclude that many of NATO's political leaders were excessively optimistic about the prospect that Milosevic would back down either before a bombing campaign was launched or after a short campaign. This misplaced optimism harmed NATO's campaign against Milosevic.

Should NATO have launched a ground assault?

112.  We discuss above[271] the international differences over how to address the Kosovo issue, and whether there should have been an earlier threat of force. Another question which divided the alliance was whether NATO should use ground forces in addition to air power. Remarkably, the FCO memorandum[272] does not directly address the issue of whether a ground assault should have been launched: testament perhaps to the Government's sensitivity on the issue at the time the memorandum was written. However, an FCO telegram written just after the end of the campaign, provided to us by the FCO, states that there were "probably a range of issues" that made "Milosevic cave in" one of which was "the mounting likelihood of a ground offensive in Kosovo."[273] Sir John Goulden alluded to the fact that there was planning under way in NATO for a possible ground war, without actually speaking its name:

    "The military had told us from the beginning, and we had known from the beginning, that once you start making threats and acting on them you have to be willing to go right through to the end, if necessary, to succeed. So we did know that if the air campaign had not succeeded we would have had to consider those military options. Towards the end of the campaign those options were increasingly being considered between the main allied governments."[274]

At a later date, the Foreign Secretary was slightly more blunt—when asked how close the alliance had been to launching a ground assault, he replied: "I think if Milosevic had not moved by the time of the G8 summit [7-8 June 1999] then opinions might have coalesced."[275] Recent press reports also indicate that some members of the Alliance, including the United Kingdom, were making plans to launch a ground assault—presumably involving a "coalition of the willing," which would have had more cohesion but perhaps less legitimacy than a NATO operation.[276] It also appears that the prospect of a ground assault was important from the Russian perspective. Dr Oleg Levitin, a member of the Russian delegation at Rambouillet, argues that "there is little doubt that among a number of factors that pressed Milosevic to accept UNMIK and KFOR the most important was the threat of ground operation." He goes on to state that "only the assumption that a NATO ground operation was imminent convinced Moscow to play a constructive role in June 1999."[277]

113.  Despite the optimism among NATO leaders about the likely effectiveness of air strikes,[278] many believed that air strikes alone were likely to be ineffective in achieving the Alliance's objectives. General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as having said on 15 March that:

    "Air strikes alone...could not stop Serb forces from executing Kosovars. Britain's ambassador to Belgrade had been making a similar arguments in a flood of cables to London, advising the prime minister and the foreign secretary that military action was full of risks."[279]

Naturally enough, neither the Foreign Secretary, nor Mr Donnelly (Ambassador to Belgrade in the approach to air strikes) was particularly forthcoming on this point.[280] Others have been more open about the impact of air strikes. General Klaus Naumann, who was head of the NATO Military Committee during the campaign, has said that "Quite frankly and honestly we did not succeed in our initial attempts to coerce Milosevic through air strikes to accept our demands...Nor did we succeed in preventing Yugoslavia pursuing a campaign of ethnic separation and expulsion."[281]

114.  However, as Jane Sharp told us, the Alliance was constrained from October 1998 "when the United States Defense Secretary said that he would not even commit American ground troops to a peace-keeping force."[282] There was also no support in Germany or Italy for a ground war, and Greece made it clear that it would not countenance the use of the port of Thessaloniki to facilitate a ground assault. Most of Serbia's neighbours also opposed the use of their territory for a ground war. Indeed, some have gone as far as to suggest that those opposed to NATO's bombing campaign within the Alliance may have provided targeting information to Belgrade during the campaign. As we discuss above,[283] it is certainly the case that "there was unprecedented dissension within the alliance about the strategy of bombing the Serbs."[284] In the light of this, it is likely that launching a ground war would have provoked even greater problems within NATO.

115.  None of this means, of course, that a ground war from the outset of the campaign was the right course of action, or that the Alliance should have developed plans for a ground assault more rapidly in the course of the campaign. In addition to the problem of Alliance unity, and the opposition from certain countries from which a ground invasion would have had to be launched, there were great logistical and military challenges in launching a ground war. These are issues for our colleagues on the Defence Committee to address. But given the apparent importance of the prospect of a ground assault in convincing Milosevic to back down, and the fact that, despite the political difficulties involved, some alliance members were considering the possibility of a ground assault by the end of the air campaign, it is particularly unfortunate that the use of ground forces was ruled out at the outset of the campaign. In William Hopkinson's view, "US unwillingness to suffer casualties dictated a form of intervention which exposed the Western position to a very high degree of risk."[285] As with the issue of the credibility of NATO's threat to use force,[286] there was little that the United Kingdom could do in the face of opposition from important members of the alliance, except attempt to convince others of the rightness of the United Kingdom position. If press and other reports surrounding the Washington summit are to be believed, the United Kingdom certainly attempted to do this.[287] We conclude that, because a ground assault was ruled out at an early stage, NATO was in no position to launch a ground assault in March 1999, and it would have taken many months to build up sufficient forces. Serious consideration of a ground assault only began towards the end of the campaign, and, given the military and logistical difficulties involved, it is likely that if it had proved necessary to launch a ground assault the conflict might have been prolonged and might have involved many casualties.

What was Russia's role in the Kosovo crisis?

116.  There is disagreement about the importance of the Russians in bringing Milosevic to concede. Tim Judah told us "The Russian overestimated, and I think that the Serbs could not care less about the Russians, they will use them if they can and they will sign agreements with them, just as they sign agreements with everybody else, as Milosevic did with Yeltsin, and totally disregard it."[288] However, most observers have attributed an important role to the Russians, including General Sir Mike Jackson in evidence to the Defence Select Committee recently.[289] At various stages throughout the Kosovo crisis, Russia had different perspectives from that of NATO members and the other members of the Contact Group, although it is important to remember that Russia in fact supported the broad thrust of Western policy (just as, despite misgivings, it had supported "most Western policy initiatives in Yugoslavia until 1994 [when the] use [of] air power against Serb positions around Sarajevo" was threatened).[290] Professor Roberts told us that Russia and Yugoslavia had similarities of outlook, which helped to explain why Russia's view differed from that of NATO: "Here you have two former communist federations which have inherited an extraordinary ethnic and administrative patchwork, and are both very aware of the fragility of that patchwork and very nervous about foreign interference in any possible break-up."[291] In his view, this was more important than any attachment to pan-Slavism. Dr Jones Parry told us that "the Russians diverged from two crucial aspects. One, they refused to allow Security Resolutions to be based on Chapter VII or to explicitly authorise the use of all necessary measures.[292] When it came to Rambouillet itself they distanced themselves from the military annex."[293] Having withheld support on these points, the Russians objected to the military campaign, and showed their displeasure by, for example, suspending most of their participation in the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.[294] On the other hand, the Russian's opposition did not extend so far as to provide material support for Milosevic.

117.  Steady negotiations during the conflict, through the Contact Group, the G8, other international organisations, and bilaterally, eventually brought the Russians to the point where they would accept the core of NATO's demands to Milosevic. The G8 Foreign Ministers' agreement on 6 May 1999 led—after further intensive negotiations—to the agreement on 2 June between the EU's representative, President Ahtisaari of Finland, Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin and Mr Strobe Talbott, which specified that "all" Serbian forces must withdraw from Kosovo, and that there would be a "substantial NATO participation" in the international security presence.[295] Mr Chernomyrdin, along with President Ahtisaari, then played a significant role in bringing Milosevic to concede. The FCO wrote of the Russian role "despite the acknowledged difference of view between Russia and NATO on air strikes, Milosevic appears eventually to have got the message that there were limits to the support Belgrade could expect from Moscow."[296]

118.  The problem with this account is that it does not explain the Russian attempt to gain control of Pristina airport on the night of 11/12 June, and the subsequent Russian attempt rapidly to deploy more troops by air from Russia, via Bulgarian and Romanian airspace. In telegrams supplied to the Committee during the air strikes, the FCO hinted that there was more to Russia's role than that outlined in its memorandum. One telegram states that "Russia pushed hard for an independent sector [in Kosovo], but NATO insisted that any arrangement must preserve unified command under General Jackson and avoid the de facto partition of Kosovo."[297] Although the Foreign Secretary subsequently told us that the Russians did not want to partition Kosovo,[298] it appears that Russia wanted its own zone in Kosovo. It is not unreasonable to believe that they promised Milosevic that they would achieve this aim, and that this was one of the key reasons for Milosevic agreeing to withdraw his troops from Kosovo. The fact that the Russians were, in the event, unable to deliver on their promise does not affect the argument: they certainly tried to deliver, as the dramatic deployment at Pristina airport and the subsequent attempts to seek overflight of Bulgaria and Romania testify. It is a credit to NATO commanders that any Russian attempt to establish an exclusive zone was thwarted, as this would have been inimical to the aims of the operation in Kosovo. We conclude that Russia played a central role in causing Milosevic to concede. This reinforces the message of our Russia Report that engagement with Russia is vital for achieving our foreign policy objectives in difficult regional issues of this kind.

Why did Milosevic concede?

119.  We discuss above the role played by the growing likelihood of a ground offensive, and the role played by Russia in bringing about Milosevic's retreat. Clearly we do not know exactly why Milosevic backed down. However, an FCO telegram written shortly after the end of the bombing campaign attributes Milosevic's decision to "the cumulative effects of NATO's bombing campaign; the continued unity and resolve shown by NATO partners; the mounting likelihood of a ground offensive in Kosovo; and the realisation that the Russians were not going to bail him out of this."[299] The subsequent FCO memorandum elaborates that "more than three hundred [static targets] suffered moderate to severe damage. There is clear evidence that air strikes against Milosevic's forces in the field were successful in restricting their operations...air operations had an impact on public opinion in Serbia: from an early stage, there were reports of mothers demonstrating against their sons being forced to serve in Kosovo."[300] The FCO also argues that Milosevic's indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia "appears to have added to the psychological pressure on him to strike a deal, although there was and is no prospect of him being given any sort of amnesty."[301] Tim Judah suggests an additional reason: "fear of a KLA breakthrough on the border" with Albania, where in the last stages of the air campaign, the KLA received strong air support from NATO, and Albanian army artillery.[302]

120.  In some ways the deal which concluded NATO's bombing campaign was better than that offered to Milosevic at Rambouillet, and also better than that demanded by NATO during the campaign itself. Unlike the Military Annex at Rambouillet, there was no requirement in the Military Technical Agreement (MTA) to permit the transit of NATO troops through the territory of Serbia (although it does specify that NATO troops have the right to travel five kilometres into Serbia). It is also the case that Milosevic has not had to "provide credible assurance of his willingness to work for the establishment of a political framework agreement based on the Rambouillet accords" as was demanded by NATO. However, as we discuss above, the Military Annex was not decisive in Milosevic's refusal to sign Rambouillet,[303] and it is unlikely to have been decisive in his decision to concede to NATO. Moreover, while there was no commitment under the peace deal to a referendum in Kosovo as some argued there had been under the Rambouillet proposals, post war Kosovo has only a nominal link with Yugoslavia, whereas, under the Rambouillet proposals, the linkage would have been more substantial. Overall, it cannot be considered that Milosevic got a "good deal" as a result of NATO's campaign—rather he was forced to accept NATO's demands because his situation was bad and getting worse in the face of an alliance, not divided as he had expected, but united.


121.  Above[304] we identified from Government statements and those by international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a leading member the following objectives for diplomatic action before the Kosovo crisis:

    —  improving the humanitarian situation in Kosovo;

    —  promoting dialogue between the Kosovo Albanians and Belgrade;

    —  promoting greater autonomy for the Kosovo Albanians while maintaining the internationally recognised borders of Yugoslavia;

    —  maintaining regional stability by avoiding large refugee flows into neighbouring states;

    —  discouraging the use of force to settle political differences.

We discuss below[305] how far these have been achieved.

122.  The Government set itself tough objectives, and in the end it was not possible to settle our political differences with Milosevic without the use of force. As Jonathan Steele told us, Kosovo had "a 90 per cent Albanian majority, there was no way that Serbia could really legitimately or seriously, practically, think of holding it for very many years in the future."[306] However, it was most unlikely either that Serbia in general, but in particular the Milosevic regime, would give up Kosovo peacefully, or that the Kosovo Albanian population would remain quiescent under Milosevic's brutal regime. Of course, this does not mean that the Government was wrong to attempt to achieve a diplomatic solution. It would obviously have been preferable to do this: the NATO campaign was expensive, both financially and, more importantly, in terms of lives lost, and the wounds it has caused will take many years to heal.

123.  But having arrived at the situation of March 1999—or even March 1998—it is difficult to see how military action could have been avoided. As Tim Judah told us, "at any time we could have had a new Srebrenica: how was one supposed to know that was not going to happen?"[307] The issue in Kosovo was in fact not whether Srebrenica would happen again—it was whether in the absence of NATO intervention, the Serb campaign would have continued over many years, eventually resulting in more deaths and instability in the region than if NATO had not intervened. We believe that it would. Milosevic spent a long time in Kosovo doing the minimum necessary to avoid provoking NATO intervention. Once that intervention had started he had a free hand: despite the fact that he could not use his heavy weaponry, NATO could do no worse once it had started bombing. But this does not mean that NATO was wrong to threaten or eventually use force. Without an outside constraint in 1997 and 1998, there would have been nothing to prevent Milosevic acting earlier as he did after March1999. It is likely that the conflict in Kosovo would have continued, possibly drawing in other countries in the region. And despite the exodus of Kosovo Albanians, almost all Kosovo Albanians welcomed the NATO intervention. We conclude that, while mistakes were made in the period before the NATO campaign against Milosevic, overall the Government was right to support the launching of air strikes on 24/25 March 1999.

253   Channel 4, War in EuropeBack

254   Roberts, p. 111. Back

255   QC255. Back

256   QC428. Back

257   QC428. Back

258   HC Deb 23 March 1999, col 162. Back

259   Text available on FCO web site: Back

260  Doorstep interview by the Prime Minister in Washington, on 24 April 1999, available on FCO website: Back

261   QB112. Back

262   QC42. Back

263   QC42. Back

264   See para 16. Back

265   See para 18. Back

266   Roberts, p. 111. Back

267   Ev. p. 111. Back

268   Glenny, p. 651. Back

269   Roberts, p. 109. Back

270   See para 80. Back

271   See para 77. Back

272   Ev. pp. 1-14. Back

273   Ev. p. 211. Back

274   QC37. Back

275   QC430. Back

276   The Times, 25 March 1999, Britain had detailed plan for ground war.  Back

277   Ev. p. 362. Back

278   See paras 106-111. Back

279   www.sunday­­bin/BackIssue?999. Back

280   QB110. Back

281  NATO press conference held on 4 May 1999. Transcript available on: Back

282   QC127. Back

283   See para 77. Back

284   Sunday Telegraph, 12 March 2000. Back

285   Ev. p. 276. Back

286   See para 77. Back

287   Judah, p. 270. Back

288   QC151. Back

289   10 May 2000, Q721 (Evidence taken by Defence Committee in its Kosovo inquiry: yet to be published). Back

290   Glenny, p. 639. Back

291   QC151. Back

292   See para 126. Back

293   QC13. Back

294  Third Report, Relations with the Russian Federation, Cm 101, para 73. Available on Back

295   Ev. p. 11-12. Back

296   Ev. p. 12. Back

297   Ev. p. 215. Back

298   QC440. Back

299   Ev. p. 211. Back

300   Ev. p. 12. Back

301   Ev. p. 12. Back

302   Judah, p. 284. Back

303   See paras 62-65. Back

304   See para 38. Back

305   See paras 167ff. Back

306   QC152. Back

307   QC135. In July 1995 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were killed by the Bosnian Serbs in the UN 'Safe Area' of Srbrenica. Back

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