Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

September 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 6)


NATO's Response to the Kosovo Crisis
By Shalini Chawla *


Kosovo, a province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, has had a long history of turmoil. It has a mixed population, the majority of which are ethnic Albanians who are culturally and linguistically distinct from the Serbs. Kosovo gained the status of an autonomous province of Serbia in 1968, a status reinforced in the 1974 Yugoslav Federal Constitution. However, the ethnic Albanians, known as Kosovars, wanted independence from Yugoslavia and unification with Albania. The Serb minority suffered discrimination, as also harassment from Albanian extremists and resented this. Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, championed the Serb cause while Ibrahim Rugova upheld the cause of the ethnic Albanians. Until 1989, the region enjoyed a high degree of autonomy within former Yugoslavia. When Serbian leader Milosevic altered the status of the region, removing its autonomy and bringing it under the direct control of Belgrade, the Serbian capital, the move was strenuously opposed by the Kosovar Albanians. 1

In 1998, open conflict between Serbian military and police forces and the Kosovar Albanias resulted in the death of over 1,500 Kosovars and forced 400,000 people to flee from their homes. 2 The escalating conflict, its disastrous humanitarian consequences, and the risk of its spreading to other countries, became a matter of grave concern to the international community. President Milosevic's disregard for diplomatic efforts, aimed at peacefully resolving the crisis, was also of concern. After months of escalating repression against the Kosovar Albanians and a string of broken agreements with the international community, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) took a stand, resulting in an air operation against the military machine of Milosevic on March 24, 1999 without the United Nations sanction. The objectives of NATO's air operation were to reverse the Belgrade regime's horrific policy of ethnic cleansing and allow the displaced Albanians to return to their homes in peace and security. Thus, NATO's air operation sought to force Belgrade to stop its brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo, while at the same time NATO forces have been providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of the crisis. The air campaign forced Milosevic to submit to NATO's demands and laid the foundation for the implementation of peace. A NATO led international force began to deploy immediately on the heels of the Serb withdrawal, it's mission being to implement the peace agreement and secure a safe return of thousands of Kosovar refugees. 3

NATO's intervention in the Kosovo crisis raised a number of questions. Basic principles of state sovereignty and human rights came into conflict with each other as the operation was in violation of recognised international laws and conventions. The operation aimed to reduce human suffering and bring stability and peace to the region. But how far was NATO successful in attaining its objectives? This article aims to study NATO's response to the Kosovo crisis. The study takes up NATO's military and humanitarian response to the crisis and also attempts to answer the questions raised by NATO's intervention in Kosovo.


The Kosovo Crisis and NATO's Stand

The Kosovo crisis came to a head in March 1998, when the Yugoslav government reacted in strength against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), leading to large-scale displacement of ethnic Albanians with resultant human rights excesses. The following year Kosovo seems to have hurtled through a virtual roller-coaster ride of violence and bitterness, continual hardening of positions on every side, and repeated breakdown of solutions to find a negotiated end to the crisis. There was a gradual increase of sympathy and support for the Kosovars, reaching a climax with NATO's launch of air strikes.

To put a stop to the use of violence in Kosovo the international community initiated a number of unsuccessful efforts in 1998. On March 9, 1998, the Contact Group of US, Russia and four leading European states criticised both sides for the use of violence in Kosovo for a political solution on the basis of Yugoslavia's territorial integrity, but this produced no tangible result. 4

On March 31, 1998, United Nations Security Council adopted resolution number 1160, imposing an arms embargo on Yugoslavia until it withdrew its special police force from Kosovo, accepted outside mediation, and began a substantive dialogue with the ethnic Albanians, but the resolution had only a temporary impact. By June, NATO declared its intentions to intervene militarily in Kosovo if there was no improvement in the situation.

The Yugoslav forces further pressed the KLA, and fighting continued. NATO contemplated military intervention, and the Security Council adopted resolution number 1199 on September 23, 1998, calling on both sides for cessation of hostilities and commencement of negotiations.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council on the progress of both the resolutions and his report blamed the security forces 'acting under the authority of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia' for most of the atrocities on civilians in Kosovo, but the report did not recommended any military intervention.

The possibility of military intervention appeared to be really high by this time. Russia objected to any military intervention without UN sanction, but NATO held that it would intervene without such authorisation, if necessary. US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Blair warned Belgrade to put a stop to the campaign against the Kosovars or face NATO attacks. On October 13, 1998, following a deterioration in the situation, the NATO Council authorised Activation Orders for air strikes. This move was designed to support diplomatic efforts to make the Milosevic regime withdraw forces form Kosovo, cooperate in bringing an end to the violence and facilitate the return of refugees to their homes. At the last moment, following further diplomatic initiatives including visits to Belgrade by NATO's Secretary Solana, US Envoys Holbrooke and Hill, the Chairman of NATO's Military Committee, General Nauman, and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Clark, President Milosevic agreed to comply and the air strikes were called off. 5

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1199, expressed deep concern about the excessive use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav army, and called for a cease-fire by both parties to the conflict. In the spirit of the UNSCR, limits were set on the number of Serbian forces in Kosovo, and on the scope of their operations, following a separate agreement with General's Naumann and Clark.

In addition, it was also agreed that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would establish a Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to observe compliance on the ground and that NATO would establish an aerial surveillance mission. UN Security Council Resolution 1203 endorsed the establishment of the two missions. Several non-NATO nations that participate in Partnership for Peace (PfP) agreed to contribute to the surveillance mission organised by NATO.

In support of the OSCE, the Alliance established a special military task force to assist with the emergency evacuation of members of the KVM, if renewed conflict should put them at risk. This task force was deployed in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 6 under the direction of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

Despite these steps, at the beginning of 1999, the situation in Kosovo flared up again, following a number of acts on both sides and the use of excessive and disproportionate force by the Serbian Army and Special Police. Some of these incidents were defused through the mediation efforts to the OSCE verifiers. In mid-January, the situation deteriorated further after escalation of the Serbian offensive against Kosovar Albanians.

Renewed international efforts were initiated to provide new political impetus in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. The six-nation Contact Group (France, Italy, Germany, Russia, UK and United States) met on January 29, 1999. It was agreed to convene urgent negotiations between the parties to the conflict under international mediation.

NATO supported and reinforced the Contact Group effort. On January 30, 1999 NATO agreed to the use of air strikes, if required, and issued a warning to both sides in the conflict. These initiatives resulted in initial negotiations held at Rambouillet, near Paris, from February 6 to February 23, 1999, and were followed by a further round of negotiations in Paris, from March 15 to March 18, 1999. At the end of the second round of negotiations, the Kosovar Albanian delegation signed the proposed peace agreement, but the talks broke up without a signature from the Serbian delegation.

Immediately after this, Serbian military and police forces raised the intensity of their operations against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, moving extra troops and modern tanks into the region, in a clear breach of compliance with the October, 1998 agreement. Thousands of people began to flee their homes in the face of this systematic offensive.

On March 20, 1999, the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission was withdrawn from the region, as it faced obstruction from Serbian forces to the extent that they could no longer continue to fulfill their task. US Ambassador Holbrooke then flew to Belgrade, in a final attempt to persuade President Milosevic to stop attacks on the Kosovar Albanians or face imminent NATO air strikes. Milosevic refused to comply, and thus, after diplomatic efforts failed, NATO responded on March 24, 1999 and orders were issued to commence air strikes.


Operation Allied Force

Operation Allied Force by NATO launched a systematic air campaign to attack, disrupt and degrade Serb military potential and deter further Serb actions. The NATO campaign focussed at the outset on destroying, isolating and interdicting the VJ (Yugoslav Army) and MUP (Special Police) forces inside and around Kosovo, and preventing a continuation of the aggression and its intensification. The allied campaign pursued an array of strategic target sets. These included logistics forces outside Kosovo which had the ability to reinforce or support forces in Kosovo, the integrated air defence system, higher level command and control, petroleum storage facilities and other targets that fed Serbia's military and security machine. 7

The campaign was not against the Serbian people. As the campaign progressed, it grew in intensity and focussed specifically on the forces of repression from top to bottom to coerce a change in their behaviour or failing that, to degrade and ultimately destroy their means of repression. The campaign employed the highest proportion of precision weaponry ever used in an air operation. 8

NATO's air campaign achieved success in the sense that the Yugoslav integrated air defence system was seriously damaged. Yugoslavia lost its early warning radars, missiles and fighters; and slowly but steadily the Yugoslav forces lost the ability to maintain situational awareness of the air campaign.

The Allied operation hit the Serb electric power system and destroyed the oil and petrol facilities. Another vital step taken in the campaign was the cutting off of the supply routes that allowed Milosevic to keep his forces fuelled and able to continue their mission of ethnic cleansing.

The result of the air campaign was that the Serb forces were transformed from well-equipped, efficient and lethal units into isolated forces increasingly weakened in their campaign of brutality. Every day marked another event that highlighted the disruption in their ranks-mass desertions, resignations by senior army officers, and generals under house arrests.

On June 10, 1999, after an air campaign lasting more than 2 months, NATO decided to suspend its air operations against Yugoslavia. This decision was taken after consultation with the North Atlantic Council and confirmation from General Clark that the full withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo had begun. The withdrawal was in accordance with a Military Technical Agreement 9 concluded between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on the evening of June 9, 1999. Proponents of air power proudly claimed it as the first clear instance when a war was won by the application of air power alone, and that never before had air power played such a central role in the conduct and outcome of an entire conflict.


NATO's Humanitarian Response

The Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign forced more than 1.5 million Kosovars from their homes, nearly a million of whom fled or were forced out of Kosovo. This resulted in untold hardship and suffering for the people of Kosovo and has had a major impact on neighbouring Albania, the former Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

To provide assistance to the refugees and the most affected countries, the international community set in motion a major relief effort. This effort, led by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), brought about a high level of cooperation among international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), donor nations, as well as neighbouring countries. Most significant was the major involvement of NATO, its member states and its partners in the overall humanitarian effort. Though NATO is not a humanitarian organisation, its considerable capabilities were successful in relieving the sufferings of thousands of refugees.

NATO's response to the refugee crisis has been threefold:


Coordinated Crisis Response

NATO's support for the UNHCR-led humanitarian operation in Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been coordinated through the European Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), which was established at NATO in 1998 and began assisting UNHCR as soon as it was established. The EADRCC developed a good working relationship with its counterparts in UNHCR, and when the Kosovo crisis began to generate large numbers of forced expulsions and refugees. UNHCR turned to NATO for assistance in:


Operation Allied Harbour

Though the military forces of individual Alliance countries were already aiding the refugees, on April 15, 1999, UN Security Council approved Operation Allied Harbour-the NATO operation to support humanitarian relief efforts in Albania. While NATO forces provided support to previous humanitarian operations, this was the first NATO operation specifically developed for a humanitarian mission. This NATO led operation involved the participation of contingents from NATO and non-NATO nations, coordinating the efforts of military forces in direct support of the Albanian government and UNHCR.


NATO-led Kosovo Force-KFOR

Within days of Belgrade's acceptance of a peace and the suspension of the Allied air campaign, a NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) began deployment to secure the province for the return of refugees. KFOR is a multinational force under unified command and control with substantial NATO participation.

KFOR entered Kosovo from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on June 12, 1999 ("D-Day"), with a force of 20,000 troops split up into six brigades led by France, Germany, Italy, the US and two from the UK. 12 When KFOR arrived at Kosovo, Yugoslav military forces were still present in large numbers and Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Clirimatare e Kosvoes-UCK) too were armed and highly visible. Not less than around a million people were refugees outside Kosovo and those who remained lived in daily fear for their lives. Roads were mined, homes were destroyed, bridges down, schools and hospitals out of action and there was little electricity and water, radio and TV were off the air and thus ordinary life in Kosovo was suspended.

The immediate priority was to ensure that no security vacuum should be allowed to develop between the outgoing and incoming forces that could have been filled by the UCK or any other armed group. In 11 days, the operation achieved the stated aim-withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and their replacement by KFOR as the only legitimate military force under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. 13

The UNSCR 1244 laid out the whole panoply of activities to be conducted not only by KFOR but also by United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). KFOR was charged with a number of tasks:

KFOR took up its tasks and is dealing with it successfully. Since its arrival KLA has been demilitarised and transformed. Also, KFOR's demining programmes are producing obvious results. It has also been successful in showing a decline in the crime statistics and has provided substantial support to UNMIK and NGOs through its reconstruction and humanitarian projects.


Situation in Kosovo Post-NATO Intervention

Despite all the above, the general security situation in Kosovo has not changed significantly. Members of minority communities continue to be victims of intimidation, assaults and threats throughout Kosovo. In particular, during recent weeks there has been an upsurge in localised violence. These attacks, almost exclusively against Kosovo Serbs, appear to be orchestrated and have had an unsettling effect on Kosovo Serb's confidence. UNMIK and KFOR have expanded their efforts in response to those attacks. 15

NATO has not been able to successfully prevent a humanitarian disaster-genocide and expulsion-in Kosovo. An objective of this kind cannot be achieved by air strikes alone. Undoubtedly, the withdrawal of all Yugoslav troops and the arrival of KFOR have created conditions in Kosovo where the effects of genocide and persecution have at least been partially reversed. Those driven from the country have been able to return; houses, roads and bridges are being repaired, but the loss of human life is something that cannot be put right. The fact that thousands of Kosovar Albanian civilians were killed by Serb soldiers and paramilitaries means that the "balance sheet" of the NATO and KFOR commitment in Kosovo will always be negative. 16

Kosovo might be said to be the land of the free. There are no taxes and there is virtually no functioning legal system. No registration of citizens exists and all records like crime, car ownership, births, marriages and deaths appear to have disappeared. 17 The Serbs destroyed almost everything in the state: from snowploughs, refuse carts, fire engines and polio vehicles, to public records and documents. The state suffers lethal disorder. Anarchy is evident in most aspects of day-to-day life. Years of repression under the Serbs has rendered the Kosovars remarkably proficient in running underground, parallel systems of government. Some Kosovars are not really concerned if and when the international community creates an ordered society.

A few sectors of the economy are flourishing, mainly the service sector-cafes, restaurants, petrol stations etc. The Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), disbanded by KFOR has been officially re-established as the Kosovo Protection Corps (Trupat te Mbrojitjes e Kosoves-TMK) with the blessing of KFOR and the UNMIK. 18 One of the vital institutions missing from Kosovo after NATO's takeover was a police force, which had previously been an exclusively Serb institution. UNMIK and KFOR are jointly seeking to rebuild the police and judicial systems. UNMIK and KFOR continue to strive to create a safe and secure environment for all residents of Kosovo. While much has been done, a lot remains to be done. Understanding and tolerance in Kosovo remain scarce and reconciliation is far from a reality. It is vital that all concerned, leaders and ordinary people alike, make a personal and concerted effort to bring violence, intimidation and harassment to an end.



NATO's intervention in Kosovo aimed to reverse the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing in the province and ensure the safe return of Kosovar Albanians. Fundamental principles of international relations-state sovereignty, non-use of force and respect for human rights-were brought into conflict with each other, sparking off considerable debate.

The main characteristic of NATO's conduct of the war in Kosovo was a desire to avoid friendly casualties. Thus NATO leaders refused to commit land forces to combat. Instead, they focussed on a massive air campaign involving nearly 1,000 aircraft, as well as unmanned cruise missiles. 19 NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia was meant to operate in three phases. The first was to be an attack on Yugoslavia's air defence systems, the second to consist of attacks on military forces in Kosovo and the third to be a more generalised bombardment. But because the Yugoslav's refused to turn on most of their air defence radars, their air defence associated missile systems were never satisfactorily suppressed. 20 Instead of vigorously seeking out those targets which would have required low flying and brought NATO planes into the range of anti-aircraft artillery and hand-held surface to air missiles, NATO also targeted high altitude bombing of strategic civilian targets with some military relevance, such as oil refineries. As a British analyst, Jonathan Eyal, remarked "a strategy which was meant to allow for a careful escalation of pressure on Yugoslavia in order to produce a peace settlement became an end in itself. In the process, the list of targets was progressively enlarged and the distinction between civilian, and military objectives increasingly blurred". 21 So, not only the choice of weapons (airplanes and cruise missile) but also their targets were determined by the need to avoid casualties on their own side. Driven by the same desire to minimise casualties, NATO could not do much to avoid the humanitarian disaster in Kosovo since in the initial couple of weeks of NATO's campaign, more Kosovars were killed than before and hundreds of thousands were driven out of their homes. The ethical failing of NATO's campaign was that its choice of targets was not discriminate. The result of this targeting policy was high civilian casualties among the Yugoslav population and enormous economic damage.

During the Allied bombing campaign there was a conspicuous absence of legal argument in defence of the NATO position. The NATO air strikes violated well-established international laws and conventions. Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibits the use of force against a sovereign state that has not committed aggression and Yugoslavia cannot be accused of aggression. Also section 7 of Article 2 brings internal disputes and conflicts like Kosovo beyond the scope of external intervention. The current law of the UN Charter does not accommodate the bombing of Yugoslavia, since the action was neither based on a Security Council decision under chapter VII 22 of the UN Charter, nor pursued in collective self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter-the only two justifications for use of force that are currently available under international law. Thus, there was an absence of a clear legal basis for the operation.

It may be argued that NATO's strategy worked because ultimately Yugoslavia submitted to most of NATO's demands. But this is to measure effectiveness only in terms of forcing the enemy to surrender rather than attaining strategic objectives. In Kosovo, the basic objectives were 'to prevent' a humanitarian disaster and to ensure the long-term stability of the region by restoring Kosovo's autonomy within Yugoslavia, which were not clearly achieved.



Note *: Researcher, IDSA.  Back.

Note 1: For detailed historical background, see Stefan Troebst, "The Kosovo Conflict", Sipri Yearbook 1999, (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1999), pp. 47-62.  Back.

Note 2: KFOR Online, Background Information, <>.  Back.

Note 3: General Wesley Clark, "When force is necessary: NATO's military response to the Kosovo crisis", NATO Review, no. 2, Summer 1999, p. 14.  Back.

Note 4: See A.N.D. Haksar, "Kosovo Crisis: Prospects and Retrospect", Aakrosh, Vol. 2, no. 4, July 1999, pp. 22-30.  Back.

Note 5: <>  Back.

Note 6: Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.  Back.

Note 7: General Clark, n. 3, p. 16.  Back.

Note 8: For a technical analysis of NATO's air operation, see Col. G.D. Bakshi, "Tactical lessons from the Yugoslav air campaign", Indian Defence Review, October-December 1999, vol. 14 (4), pp. 56-61.  Back.

Note 9: The agreement was signed by Lt. General Sir Michael Jackson, on behalf of NATO, and by Colonel General Svetozar Marjanovic of the Yugoslav Army and Lt. General Obrad Stevanovic of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, on behalf of the Governments of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Republic of Serbia.  Back.

Note 10: Ambassador Sergio Balanzino, "NATO's humanitarian support to the victims of the Kosovo crisis", NATO reviews, no. 2, Summer 1999, p. 10.  Back.

Note 11: Ibid.  Back.

Note 12: Lt. General Sir Mike Jackson, "KFOR: Providing security for building a better future for Kosovo," NATO review, no. 3, Autumn 1999, p. 16.  Back.

Note 13: Ibid.  Back.

Note 14: See Lt. General Sir Mike Jackson, "KFOR: The inside story", Rusi Journal, February 2000, pp. 13-18.  Back.

Note 15: United Nations Security Council, "Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo," S/2000/538, June 6, 2000.  Back.

Note 16: Matthias Rueb, "Reconstructing Kosovo: On the right track-but where does it lead?", NATO review, no. 3, Autumn 1999, p. 20.  Back.

Note 17: Paul Harris, "Kosovo suffers law and disorder", Janes Intelligence Review, June 2000, p. 17.  Back.

Note 18: Ibid.  Back.

Note 19: Paul Robinson, " 'Ready to kill but not to die': NATO Strategy in Kosovo", International Journal, vol. LIV no. 4, autumn 1999, p. 672.  Back.

Note 20: CBC National News, May 27, 1999; NATO Daily Briefing, April 23, 1999. Daily briefings can be found on the internet at <http//>  Back.

Note 21: Jonathan Eyal, 'Is NATO winning?', BBC website, as cited by Paul Robinson, n. 19, p. 676.  Back.

Note 22: Chapter VII: Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression, Articles 39-51.  Back.