The Kosovo War, 25 Years Later: And So To War

by Doug Muir on January 22, 2024

Part 4 and (for now) last of this series. Earlier installments can be found here.

So, by early 1999 various attempts to resolve the Kosovo situation had failed. In autumn 1998 the Americans had sent Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to Belgrade. Holbrooke negotiated a deal that looked good on paper, with a ceasefire, partial Serb withdrawal, international observers, and negotiations leading to eventual elections. However, in practice the KLA ignored the deal – they hadn’t been consulted, after all – and the Serbs quickly began to foot-drag and renege. So, by January 1999, armed intervention was under serious discussion.

One theory of the conflict deserves mention here. This is the idea that US President Bill Clinton provoked the bombing campaign in order to distract public attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment. This idea was widely discussed at the time, usually referencing the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, in which a US Presidential administration concocts a war in Albania to distract from the President’s sexual misconduct.

It’s not completely impossible! But on the other hand, it’s also completely unprovable. There’s no way to know what Clinton was thinking, and there’s no evidence that distraction from the scandal was a core motivation.

Also, there are several problems with this theory. One is that, in the particular case of Kosovo, the Americans were not the ones pushing hardest for action. American public opinion was slow to become interested in Kosovo. It was in Europe that reports of oppressions and atrocities circulated most widely. “Tabloid headlines in London, above the fold in Berlin, page three in Washington”. Britain’s Tony Blair, in particular, was out ahead of Clinton; he was a passionate advocate for intervention from quite early on.

Another problem with the theory is that Clinton wasn’t even the biggest hawk within his own administration. That honor probably belongs to his Secretary of State, Madeline Allbright. Allbright had several bad experiences with Milosevic and neither liked nor trusted him. But there were plenty of other voices within the administration urging a hard line.

A third problem is that Clinton had always been willing to use force abroad. The Clinton administration had bombed Iraq and fought a minor war in Somalia in 1993; had installed Jean Bertrand Aristide as President of Haiti in 1994; had carried out bombings in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 and — as noted a couple of posts back — had bombed the Serbs in Bosnia in 1995. So his behavior on Kosovo was pretty consistent.

Anyway, I mention the “Wag the Dog” theory because it’s still out there and sometimes comes up in online conversation. Okay, back to Kosovo.

The particular status of Slobodan Milosevic deserves some mention here. Milosevic had never been popular in Europe; rightly or wrongly, he was seen as the most culpable actor in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. However, after Dayton there was a hope that he might now become a force for stability in the region.

These hopes were disappointed. Not only did repression in Kosovo continue and worsen, but Belgrade continued to support the Bosnian Serbs in their endless conflicts with Bosnia’s weak central government. From Milosevic’s POV, he was maintaining a valuable buffer on his border; from a European perspective, he was continuing to meddle and spoil, preventing Bosnia from emerging as a viable state. (To be fair to Milosevic, it turned out that almost every other Serbian government would take a similar position. But this was not apparent at the time.) More generally, Milosevic’s Serbia continued to be a corrupt kleptocracy with close ties to organized crime, and generally had poor to terrible relations with its neighbors in the region and with the rest of Europe generally. So, by 1999, both European leaders and European public opinion were quite thoroughly sick of Milosevic, and open to the idea of an intervention that might remove or at least neutralize him.

Note that Milosevic was not actually a dictator.  True, his party and his allies controlled most Serbian media.  They dispensed immense amounts of patronage; the judiciary was under their control; opposition leaders were spied upon, slandered, and harassed; and protestors or whistleblowers were likely to be targeted by nationalist paramilitary groups or organized crime with close ties to the government. Nevertheless, Serbia was not a one-party state. There were regular elections, and Milosevic had to contest these. Also, Belgrade in particular had a history of anti-government protest going back decades; even under Communism, protests and riots in Belgrade were a concern for Yugoslav governments. (And, in fact, it would be Belgrade protestors who would eventually bring Milosevic down.) So, Milosevic was hardly a Hitler or a Saddam Hussein or even a Vladimir Putin. He had to worry about public opinion, and also about keeping the loyalty of the army, the security services, and Serbia’s oligarch class.

On one hand, this narrowed Milosevic’s room for maneuver. Serb domination in Kosovo was popular even with most of the opposition. Among Milosevic’s core supporters, it was absolutely non-negotiable. A real dictator might have been able to ignore these sentiments; Milosevic could not.

At the same time, it made him more vulnerable. A defeat in Kosovo would certainly weaken and discredit Milosevic, and might well lead to his overthrow. (As in fact it did, though it took more than a year.) So, while almost nobody was openly talking about regime change in Serbia — bad form while you’re actually in the middle of diplomatic negotiations with a regime — it was absolutely on the menu.

Okay, so let’s summarize: why did the Kosovo War happen?

The main drivers for NATO intervention were (1) Fear of “another Bosnia” in Kosovo – another Balkan war, with massacres, refugees, and ethnic cleansing; and (2) European public opinion, which put increasing pressure on European leaders to intervene, and (3) a belief that Milosevic was the problem, and thus a desire to humiliate or break him, hopefully leading to his overthrow or at least eliminating him as a problem going forward.

In addition, three other factors made the intervention easier. These weren’t things that pushed NATO forward, but they made intervention seem simpler, more tempting, and more reasonable. These were (1) the experience of Bosnia; (2) the diplomatic isolation of Serbia, and (3) the weakness of Russia.

The experience of Bosnia has already been discussed. In brief, a short NATO bombing campaign in 1995 brought the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table and led directly to the Dayton Accords and the end of the war. There was a widespread belief that a bombing campaign in Kosovo would follow the same pattern – in short, that the Serbs would quickly fold.

The diplomatic isolation of Serbia under Milosevic is not much discussed, but it was absolutely a factor. Among the interested major powers, only Russia was friendly to Milosevic: China was neutral, while the US, France, Germany, the UK and Italy were all quite heartily sick of him.  In the immediate region of Serbia, things were even worse. Albania and Hungary were hostile. Romania and Bulgaria had just joined NATO. Macedonia’s government felt – reasonably enough – that Milosevic was ignoring their security concerns, since Macedonia also had a large Albanian minority who were very engaged with events in Kosovo. Even little Montenegro, which was still nominally joined with Serbia in a rump Yugoslavia, had no interest in maintaining Serb domination in Kosovo; the Montenegrin government stood aloof from Milosevic, and would be effectively neutral in the war.

The only country in the region that was somewhat friendly to Serbia was Greece. But while Greek public opinion was sympathetic to Serbia, the Greek government was not about to throw Milosevic a lifeline.  The Greeks might worry about Albanian irredentism in northern Greece, but they didn’t like or trust Milosevic either. So, an attack on Serbia would not (it was thought) drag NATO in any other conflicts, nor would any of his neighbors give him help that would prolong the conflict.

Finally, the weakness of Russia absolutely allowed NATO to be much less cautious. Russia had traditionally been the great power protector of Serbia, and this relationship had to some extent been revived in the 1990s. However, in 1999, Russia under Yeltsin was near a nadir of international influence and prestige. It was of course still a nuclear power. But Russia had no allies worth mentioning, the Russian economy was in shambles, and the Russian military had just suffered a humiliating defeat in the First Chechen War. NATO planners did not believe that Yeltsin’s Russia had either the will or the capacity to intervene in Kosovo. In this they were mostly correct; Russia gave moral and diplomatic support to Belgrade, and staged a dramatic last-minute intervention at Pristina Airport, but in the end it made no difference.

So, to summarize, NATO intervened to prevent “another Bosnia”; because public opinion, especially in Europe, was putting pressure on leaders; and because of a belief that Milosevic was the problem, and a desire to see him weakened or removed. The intervention was made more attractive by the experience of Operation Deliberate Force three years earlier; by Serbia’s diplomatic isolation; and by perceived Russian weakness.

Right. That ends this set of posts! I might come back in a bit to discuss the last-ditch attempt to avoid war at Rambouillet, the war itself, and its aftermath. (Or perhaps not. This is a bit of a niche topic. We shall see.)



MPAVictoria 01.22.24 at 2:39 pm

Just chiming in to say that I am finding this series fascinating and hope you continue it!


MisterMr 01.22.24 at 2:56 pm

“Note that Milosevic was not actually a dictator. True, his party and his allies controlled most Serbian media. They dispensed immense amounts of patronage; the judiciary was under their control; opposition leaders were spied upon, slandered, and harassed; and protestors or whistleblowers were likely to be targeted by nationalist paramilitary groups or organized crime with close ties to the government. Nevertheless, Serbia was not a one-party state. There were regular elections, and Milosevic had to contest these.”

This is like saying that Mussolini wasn’t a real dictator, because he could be kicked out (and was in fact in the end kicked out) by the king of Italy.


Doug Muir 01.22.24 at 6:21 pm

“This is like saying that Mussolini wasn’t a real dictator, because he could be kicked out (and was in fact in the end kicked out) by the king of Italy.”

If there’s a realistic chance of you losing the next election, you’re not a dictator. And that was true of Milosevic at pretty much all times.

Sure, Milosevic /wanted/ to be a dictator. But the state apparatus of 1990s Serbia was rickety, weak and corrupt, there were multiple power centers that were not under his control, and there were large chunks of Serbian society — especially in Belgrade — that despised and opposed him.

I can tell you firsthand (because I was there) that Belgrade had a deep and thriving anti-Milosevic culture. You could tune in to B92 and listen to a mix of rock, pop, Serbian rap (really) and anti-government news and interviews. You could pick up Dnevni Telegraf and Danas, newspapers that were aggressively critical of Milosevic. Their reporters were harassed and attacked, advertisers were scared off, but they stayed open and kept criticizing Milosevic throughout. Hell, you could go to public concerts with anti-government bands singing anti-government songs. A fair chunk of the audience would be plainclothes police, but you could do it.

And at elections, opposition parties could publicly campaign. They’d be hassled, there would be gerrymandering and hostile media and some outright fraud, but they couldn’t be stopped from campaigning; they could and did make aggressive criticism of the government part of their campaigns. The President was not assured of victory; and even when he won, his party usually couldn’t get a majority in Parliament and had to go into coalition.

Milosevic didn’t have firm control over JNA (the army). JNA was its own power center throughout, and Milosevic had to step carefully around its leadership; he couldn’t just replace them with puppets and cronies. That’s why he had to rely so much on paramilitary goon squads and violent criminals like Arkan and Legija — the solders wouldn’t follow any orders they didn’t like.

Hell, even the police — especially in Belgrade — weren’t particularly loyal to Milosevic. Like the army, they had their own hierarchy and were their own power center. This is why you had people like Goran Radosavlejevic, high-level police commanders who ended up stepping politely aside for the Belgrade crowds that finally brought Milosevic down.

Vibrant opposition, public opposition, free-ish press, opposition radio stations, seriously contested elections, ruling party can’t win a majority, little control of the military, imperfect control even over the police: none of those things were true in Rome under Mussolini. To bring it a bit closer to home, they’re not true in Russia or China today. So — no offense — it’s a dumb comparison.

Doug M.


Hunter K 01.22.24 at 9:48 pm

It’s a niche topic, but one I find very interesting because there’s not a ton of info floating around about it, and I know almost nothing about it despite it being one of the major events during a formative period in my life. I’ve enjoyed reading these posts as they’ve shed light on a historical blind spot for me (and certainly many others my age).

And yes, the ‘wag the dog’ angle was taken very seriously at the time, as I recall.


Matt 01.22.24 at 10:15 pm

and staged a dramatic last-minute intervention at Pristina Airport, but in the end it made no difference.

When I was in the Peace Corps in Russia from 99-01, I was…friendly…with a guy who was a colonel in Russian military intelligence.(*) He’d been involved in this action, and told me (confirming some other stories) about how they flew in to the airport, and had to ask for fuel after it. Supposedly part of the goal was to not be left out of any occcupying/peace keeping force in Kosovo. (The people who flew in were “peace keepers” in Bosnia.) It was unclear how far this was done unilaterally by people in the field, I think, but he was fully aware that they had no hope of doing anything productive.

(*) This guy was very interesting and friendly, but made me nervous as hell. His day to day job was teaching at the paratrooper academy in the city I lived in. We met and chatted several times, and he had me over to his house once. He invited me to visit his paratrooper class, saying I’d “have to come in the back” because the commander of the academy didn’t want “foreigners” inside. I declined. At the time there as a sort of spy mania in Russia, with several Americans having been arrested and put in prison for spying, or on very dubious grounds with claims of spying in the background. I sort of suspected he was either trying to see if I was a spy or might be interested and able to give him useful information. Neither was true, but I was 100% uninterested in being even suspected of being a spy, so didn’t maintain the relationship, even though he was a very interesting guy, with an interesting background.


John Q 01.23.24 at 4:12 am

Just repeating that the decision to ignore Russia was a disaster. On the one hand, the apparent success emboldened Blair and Bush to think that bypassing the UN was a good thing to do, a lesson applied with disastrous effect in Iraq. On the other, Putin (still an obscure figure back then) took note, and drew the same conclusion, that there was no need to worry about international law as long as you could win on the battlefield


Doug Muir 01.23.24 at 10:50 am

“Just repeating that the decision to ignore Russia was a disaster.”

Okay, this is a bit odd.

Because we didn’t ignore Russia! Russia was part of the diplomatic process almost until the bombs started falling. There was a perception that Milosevic would listen to Yeltsin, because Russia was pretty much the only friendly face out there. So in the weeks before the bombing, Clinton was on the phone repeatedly to Yeltsin, as was French President Jacques Chirac. At a lower level, US SecState Albright met repeatedly with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov. including flying to Moscow in late January.

There was an initial attempt to resolve Kosovo through an informal “Contact Group” of six interested powers (the four big EU countries, the US and Russia). That didn’t work. Meanwhile there was a parallel effort to go through the United Nations — three resolutions in the months before the war. And all of those involved working closely with the Russians, because they had veto power. And all of them failed, because they had no enforcement mechanism, because the Russians wouldn’t agree to one.

That was the dilemma: Milosevic wouldn’t change Serbian policy in Kosovo unless compelled by outside force. And Yeltsin would never agree to the use of force. It took a while for this to become clear, and during that period the US and the Europeans continued trying to get the Russians on side.

Yeltsin wanted to resolve the Kosovo crisis either bilaterally through talks with foreign leaders, or through the UN. And Clinton and other Western leaders were willing to talk to him and willing to go to the UN — up to a point. But public opinion in Russia wouldn’t allow Yeltsin to condone the use of force against Brave Little Serbia. So, once force was on the table, so was excluding Russia.

— In the comment above I noted that Milosevic wasn’t a dictator. Neither was Yeltsin! He had to worry about public opinion. And the tabloid media and newly revived Orthodox Church had whipped the Russian public into a sentimental frenzy over The Serbs, Our Little Orthodox Brothers. There was also the painful recent memory of Russia’s recent humiliation in Chechnya — like Kosovo, an ethnically distinct, majority Muslim breakaway province where Russians had been a minority and were ethnically cleansed. The Russians were very inclined to see Kosovo through that lens.

A generous interpretation would be that Yeltsin was in an impossible situation, caught between Russian public opinion and Milosevic’s determination never to allow majority rule in Kosovo. A less generous interpretation would be that Russia was determined to be a spoiler, bluffed, and got its bluff called.

But either way — Russia was included. They were included until it was clear that there was no point in including them. Hell, they were even included after that — there were three “special Ambassadors” appointed to the Rambouillet conference, and one of them was a Russian, Boris Mayorski. As expected, he turned out to be completely useless. But you can’t say Russia was being neglected. We were still trying to include them right up to the point when talks collapsed altogether.

“The West ignored Russia” is a Russian retcon of Kosovo. It fits neatly with the current Russian government’s narrative of “the 1990s were a decade of humiliation, from which Vladimir Putin rescued us”. But that doesn’t mean it’s true.

TBC, you /can/ argue that Russia was humiliated by the Kosovo War — true! — and that we should have tried to soften that blow. You can absolutely make a case for that.

As to international law vs. battlefield victory, that’s a deep hard problem that long predates the Kosovo crisis and will still be a problem long after you and I are dust. Did the Kosovo war make it worse? That question deserves a post of its own.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 01.23.24 at 10:52 am

“At the time there as a sort of spy mania in Russia, with several Americans having been arrested and put in prison for spying, or on very dubious grounds with claims of spying in the background.”

The exact same thing happened in Kazakhstan a few years later — a number of American Peace Corps volunteers were entrapped and then arrested. It led to the Peace Corps pulling out of Kazakhstan altogether, and IMS at least one volunteer did significant time — a year or more — in a Kazakh jail.

So, good call on your part.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 01.23.24 at 11:00 am

“And yes, the ‘wag the dog’ angle was taken very seriously at the time, as I recall”

It was a notably weird coincidence that it came out just before the Kosovo crisis went from simmer to boil.

That said, the main writer was David Mamet, who “came out” as a conservative not long after Kosovo and these days is a full-throated Trump supporter. So in retrospect it’s perhaps less surprising that he wrote a screenplay depicting a thinly disguised Bill Clinton as a pedophile surrounded by liars.

Doug M.


Greg Eow 01.23.24 at 1:28 pm

Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise, this series was fascinating, fair-minded, and well-paced. Easy for me to say, but: 1) I encourage you to continue the series 2) would love to learn more about the non-political context (more Serbian rap music!) and 3) I would be thrilled to see a recommended reading/listening/viewing list for folks who want to go a bit deeper on the topic now that you have our attention.


Guano 01.23.24 at 3:48 pm

The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was labelled as a humanitarian intervention. This four part series about the NATO intervention in Kosovo has been very interesting but doesn’t explore to what it extent it is justified to think of it as humanitarian (apart from a short discussion in the comments on Part 1).

The idea of humanitarian military interventions started in 1990 (as the USSR was collapsing) with the purpose of de-escalating various conflicts around the world that were orphans of the Cold War. By 2003 some people were justifying starting a conflict for regime change in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. The bombing of Belgrade in 1999 was a step along that path – was it humanitarian?


biz 01.23.24 at 6:32 pm

The Kosovo war was a big part of my political awakening, so I have really been enjoying the insight of these posts. As a leftist American, the gut punch was really the bombing of the TV station, which I believed to be a totally unacceptable act. That led me to do some protesting, including against Clinton as he handed out diplomas at the University of Chicago. At least a couple graduates declined to shake Clinton’s hand, which made a bit of news here. I later heard that some footage of me was seen on Serbian television and we were cast of supporters of Milosevich, which was not our intent and was an important political lesson. I would be very interested in any thoughts you have on the tv station bombing and its legacy.


John Q 01.23.24 at 7:41 pm

@Doug As usual, I tend to overstate things. To rephrase my position, the West should have tried harder to get Russia on board with a UN resolution. Perhaps, as you say, this wouldn’t have worked, but in retrospect it would have been worth trying. The consequences of the path actually taken were disastrous.


Doug Muir 01.23.24 at 9:48 pm

“has been very interesting but doesn’t explore to what it extent it is justified to think of it as humanitarian ”

Okay, the very last post: “Mass killings and massacres now began to appear: Ljubenic, Gornje Obrinje, the Panda Cafe shooting, the village of Racak… the trend was steadily towards more and larger scale violence. By the spring of 1999, large areas of Kosovo were “no-go” regions… Over 100,000 Albanians fled their homes, some into the towns, others over the borders to Albania and Macedonia…

“Kosovo in 1998 was all too reminiscent of Bosnia several years earlier. It was entirely reasonable to assume that before long, the Serbs would escalate to ethnic cleansing … and to large-scale massacres”

— Was that not explicit enough? 100,000 displaced people, a bunch of massacres, and a reasonable fear of ethnic cleansing?

Doug M.


LFC 01.30.24 at 8:47 pm

Guano @11 wrote:

The idea of humanitarian military interventions started in 1990 (as the USSR was collapsing)

No: the idea of humanitarian military intervention actually goes way back. What has changed over time is the identity of the people who count as worthy or possible subjects of intervention. In the 19th century, some European powers were under frequent pressure to intervene on behalf of Christians in the Ottoman Empire who were being persecuted (or worse) by the Ottomans. This was a big foreign-policy issue in Britain, e.g., at times (cf. Gladstone and ‘the Bulgarian atrocities’). I’m weak at this remove on the historical details but the point is that in the 19th cent. humanitarian intervention was mostly thought of in terms of protecting Christians, and then the category of rights-bearing people expanded eventually to encompass, in principle at least, everyone. In more recent times, there have been interventions with humanitarian elements — though not “pure” humanitarian interventions — well before 1990 (i.e., India in E. Pakistan, 1971; Tanzania in Uganda, ’79; Vietnam invading Cambodia under Pol Pot).

A good overview is M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention (2003), ch. 3. (Doesn’t discuss Iraq 2003, however, as it was written before that.)

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