The following is an excerpt from Operation Kinetic: Stabilizing Kosovo by Sean M. Maloney (July 2018).
On the sweltering night of 12 June 1999, Canadian Coyote reconnaissance vehicles pulled out of the Krivolak training area south of Skopje, Macedonia, and headed for the tactical assembly area on the international border around 2300 hours. Four hours before British airmobile troops were scheduled to board their helicopters and seize the strategic Kačanik passes leading into Kosovo, men and women wearing black berets on their heads and maple leaf flags on their left shoulders swarmed onto the sleek eight-wheeled armored vehicles, attaching equipment, mounting machine guns, tightening bolts, and filling jerry cans with that precious fluid, water. Not all of the feverish activity was due to the humid, 40-plus degrees Celsius atmosphere: NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) was preparing to enter that eponymous Yugoslav province, and the timelines were tight. The soldiers of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Reconnaissance Squadron sweated out their last-minute tasks as radios and vehicle intercoms crackled back and forth. There was a hum of purposeful activity, but it was tempered by uncertainty. Despite all of the assurances made by the diplomats, KFOR might not be actually be invited guests.
The Yugoslav army might decide at the last minute to play the spoiler in this latest drama in the little shop of horrors called the Balkans. The Canadian code name for this mission was Operation Kinetic, and like that physics-based name, NATO was prepared to use its energy to punch a hole into the heart of Kosovo. Canada and its allies were not going to stand idly by and observe the wholesale ethnic cleansing of yet another Balkan minority group. This new conflict had potentially huge repercussions in the volatile region, especially in recently stabilized Bosnia. And the Russians were now threatening to intervene.
Even though it was front-page news for more than a year, in 1998– 99, “Kosovo” even today is a name barely spoken outside of a tight ring of Balkans specialists. In the nearly two decades after al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it is easy to forget that a NATO-led coalition intervened in Serbia to protect the population from state-sponsored genocidal violence and then established a statelet administered by the international community to stabilize the affected province. At that time, the air campaign NATO conducted against Serbia was massively controversial. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia even conducted a nuclear “flourish” directed at North America.
Why exactly have the dramatic events of the Kosovo campaign receded into collective amnesia? There are many reasons, none of them good.
During the war against al Qaeda and its allies in the 2000s the Balkans region, along with its discontents, became a strategic backwater. There was media fatigue, as well as compassion fatigue, after almost a decade of protracted violence in the region. In the reordering of the world after 9/11 the campaign in Kosovo had no relevance to the al Qaeda propaganda machine: indeed the “Crusader” West’s rescue and protection of one million Muslims in what had been Yugoslavia was a liability to Osama bin Laden as he attempted to mobilize his constituents against his enemies near and far, including NATO members. Although he decried Serb barbarities in Bosnia, he was silent on Kosovo in his expositions. Bin Laden’s opponent, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, was scathing about Kosovo and “offered the Balkans as a model of a postwar policy gone wrong,” one that had generated a “‘culture of dependence’ that made it hard for the Kosovars to stand on their own feet.” Nothing good, it seemed, could be derived from those experiences. Counterinsurgency was the way of the future for the 2000s, not failed 1990s “peacekeeping” operations. And if one wanted to progress upward in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, one did not mention Kosovo or the Balkans.
The Kosovo intervention is today obscured or otherwise distorted by the virulent “hybrid warfare” propaganda that accompanies Russian adventures in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Syria.
Vladimir Putin, viewing the geopolitical stage through the kaleidoscope of Kosovo, justifies Russian interventions in these regions on the basis of NATO’s intervention in the Balkans. With tired old Communist Party propaganda techniques employing moral equivalence, the simplistic argument is made that what happens in Ukraine is acceptable because it somehow balances what NATO did in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia.
Arguments employed in the service of current Russian objectives similarly include the assertion that all NATO operations since the 1990s are either failures, have questionable legitimacy, or both and that they generate regional chaos in each case. The logic is this: if all NATO operations are failures and illegitimate, then the Kosovo operation was a failure and illegitimate. The argument has no further utility except as a club with which to beat NATO and excoriate its membership. Normally this sort of simplistic argument remains in the realm of propaganda, but now some members of the academic community use it in public forums, and the facts about what happened in Kosovo are in some cases actively suppressed. The criticism does not stop there. For Serb nationalists it was the intervention that unleashed ethnic cleansing and genocide directed against the Kosovar Serb population, who suddenly morphed from perpetrator to victim status. Therefore NATO was held to be at fault.
The cumulative effect of these criticisms over nearly twenty years is a tendency to unfairly ignore or even vilify the successful actions and activities of those who participated in the complex Kosovo intervention. In 1999, Kosovo was the breakpoint in a decade of problematic and failed interventions by international organizations in locations around the globe: Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Croatia, and Bosnia. Kosovo cannot and should not be taken out of its historical context. The intervention was the first time in the 1990s that ethnic cleansing was arrested while it was in progress and the effects reversed. That fact alone should merit historical recognition if not praise for those who conceived and carried out those operations. They should no longer be subjected to one-sided excoriation by those critics in the comfortable and safe surroundings of the human rights industry, academia, the legal profession, the internet, and the diplomatic cocktail party. Somebody had to carry out the operation on the ground, dig up the mass graves, prevent the destruction of cultural property, and forestall mob violence. The expulsion of an estimated 850,000 Kosovar Albanians to Albania and Macedonia and Serbian security forces’ internal dis- placement of some 400,000 more out of a population of two million residents was unparalleled in post–World War II western Europe. This humanitarian outrage included Serb forces murdering an estimated 10,000 Kosovars, many of whose remains were later excavated, pulverized, and transported to multiple sites in Serbia when it became clear that NATO forces would enter the province (these transportations were dubbed “sanitation” operations by Serbian special security forces). Mass graves of Kosovar Albanians were still being found in Serbia as late as 2010.6 Indeed the deliberate destruction of archives, libraries, land ownership documentation, and other cultural artifacts undertaken in 1998–99 by Serb elements appears to have been an attempt to expunge Kosovar Albanians from the history of Kosovo. In essence the combined effects of these events constituted genocide in its original 1948 definition, despite attempts by elements in the un to shy away from seriously discussing it. The wanton destruction of Serb Orthodox monasteries, churches, art, and religious facilities by Kosovar Albanians during violence that surged in March 2004, as well as any other revanchist activity undertaken subsequently against Kosovar Serbs, while equally abhorrent, does not retroactively justify the large-scale actions Belgrade implemented in Kosovo during 1998–99. For rational human beings history is chronological, not concurrent.
Ultimately the unwillingness of the peoples of Kosovo to reconcile over real and imagined grievances related to Josip Broz Tito’s management of Yugoslavia and the exploitation of those grievances during the Slobodan Milošević years, coupled with the inability of the peoples of Kosovo as a whole to grip those who profit from advocating and employing prejudice and ethnic violence are some of the problems that baffle the international community today in the region. Those problems perhaps have no short-term solution. Certainly the economic limitations owing to Kosovo’s small size and divided status aggravate those conditions, not the fact of the 1999 intervention by the international community to restore a million and half people to their homes, reroof or rebuild those homes, and generate a comparatively secure environment so the people could remain in those homes.