Nato bombing of Yugoslavia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Nato bombing of Yugoslavia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Balkan war was just ending when John Rees wrote this prescient article in 1999 about the importance of Nato expansion and the fight for oil resources in the post Cold War world. We reprint it on the 25th anniversary of that war which heralded a new era of US intervention  

There are currently over 20 wars raging around the globe. So why is Nato so concerned with the one in the Balkans? The plight of the refugees is the stock pro-war answer. Yet there were 15.3 million refugees made homeless by war in 1995 alone. So why does the war in Kosovo, where US military might alone is 99 percent greater than the arms spending of the state it is fighting, command the attention of the world’s great powers?

The causes of Nato’s Balkan War cannot be found in the Balkans alone. Neither can they be found in the events of the last few months. The origins of the war are much wider and go back much further than Serbia’s relations with Kosovo. To see the whole picture we have to go back to the fundamental fact of European history in the last decade, the fall of the Stalinist states in 1989.

The end of these regimes, and German unification soon after, gave all the institutions of international capitalism an unrivalled opportunity to expand into central and eastern Europe. International capital began to “cherry pick” those sites and markets which were most profitable. Investment quickly followed, which, though large in comparison to the capitals which made it, was not large enough to sustain a turnaround in most of the east European economies. The European Community also talked of eastward expansion. But, in a Brussels bureaucracy which still regards Greek membership of the EU as a mistake because the economy is insufficiently prosperous, the integration of east European states was always more of a carrot to encourage pro-market reform than an immediate policy goal. So it was that the fastest expansion into eastern Europe came from Nato. “Nato”, reports the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “has confidently extended its collective defence provisions to three new members of the former Warsaw Pact … while the EU’s enlargement process remains mired in bickering over fundamental issues such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.”

Historians of the 1999 Balkan War will no doubt marvel at the fact that so little comment has been made about the fact that, in the very month that the war broke out, Nato integrated Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into the alliance. The southern flank of Nato between Hungary and Greece is now pierced by the states of the former Yugoslavia. This alone gives Nato a considerable strategic interest in controlling the Balkans. But there is more at stake. The effect of Nato enlargement is to swing the Iron Curtain to the east. Where once it used to divide Germany, it now runs down the eastern borders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. It ends at the borders of the former Yugoslavia. The next three states to be considered for Nato membership are a former republic of Yugoslavia itself, Slovenia, and Serbia’s neighbours, Romania and Bulgaria. Thus the whole ten year long process of Nato’s eastward push is now caught up with the fate of the Balkans in general and the former Yugoslav states in particular.

The new Iron Curtain between western and eastern Europe is not the end of the Balkans’ strategic importance for Nato. If we look along the southern flank of Nato, through Greece and Turkey, we see how closely the fate of this region is tied to another crucial area of post Cold War instablity – the arc of oil states running up from the traditional spheres of western interest in Iran and Iraq to the Caspian Sea and the newly independent states on Russia’s southern rim.

Just as Nato expansion into eastern Europe was being celebrated at the alliance’s 50th birthday party in Washington a few weeks ago, another pro-Nato alliance was being constructed in the wings of that summit. At the Washington meeting Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova joined with Uzbekistan to form Guuam, a new alliance aimed at strengthening the member states’ economic and political ties with the west. Three of these states – Georgia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan – only pulled out of the Russian dominated Confederation of Independent States’ collective security pact this spring. Guuam has agreed low level military cooperation but claims it is not a military alliance aimed against Russia. But Guuam’s formation comes hot on the heels of the Ukrainian parliament’s decision to rescind its previous order to get rid of nuclear weapons, a direct result of the Balkan War.

So it is not surprising to find Russia’s foreign minister asking, “How should we understand the fact that this new regional organisation has been created in Washington during a Nato summit?” An answer to this question was provided by Eduard Shevardnadze, president of Georgia, who said, “When I met Javier Solana [Nato secretary-general], I asked him, ‘When will you finally admit Georgia to Nato?’ He whispered in my ear, but I can’t reveal what he told me.” In all likelihood what Solana told Shevardnadze was that Nato won’t be signing Georgia up in the very near future. This is because the main significance of the Guuam area for the western powers is more economic than military at the moment.

Guuam’s main task, according to the Financial Times, “is to develop the area’s rich oil and gas deposits to the exclusion of Russia”. To this end, “aligning with Guuam from the outside are Turkey, Britain and the US – nations that have proved far more able than Russia to invest in and trade with the region.” There is indeed a rich prize at stake in the Caspian Sea region. Its proven oil reserves are estimated at between 16 and 32 billion barrels, comparable to the US’s reserves of 22 billion barrels and more than the North Sea’s 17 billion barrels. Total reserves could be as high as 179 to 195 billion barrels, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

These reserves are all a long way from the Balkans, but the routes by which the oil must come west are not. In April a new pipeline was opened carrying Caspian Sea oil through Azerbaijan and Georgia. The oil will continue its journey by tanker through the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and on past the Turkish and Greek coast. Other possible western pipeline routes lie through Turkey to the coast near Cyprus or through the Ukraine, Bulgaria and Greece – which are, respectively, a Guuam member, an aspiring member of Nato and an existing Nato member.

All these routes give the necessity of security in the Balkans an additional direct economic importance to add to the primary strategic concerns which stand behind Nato’s war in the Balkans. As US energy secretary Bill Richardson explained last November, “This is about America’s energy security … It’s also about preventing strategic inroads by those who don’t share our values. We are trying to move these newly independent countries toward the west. We would like to see them reliant on western commercial and political interests … We’ve made a substantial political investment in the Caspian and it’s important that both the pipeline map and the politics come out right.”

It is the “pipeline map” to which Richardson refers that connects the Caspian Sea oil reserves to the security of the area between Turkey, Greece and the other Balkan states. There are, as the International Herald Tribune points out, “profound economic and geopolitical consequences” stemming from the decisions about the routes by which the oil will come west: “Rivalries played out here will have a decisive impact in shaping the post-Communist world, and in determining how much influence the United States will have over its development.”

Geographical expansion is not the only way that Nato has altered in the 1990s. It has now explicitly redefined its “strategic concepts” so that it is no longer simply a defensive alliance, as it claimed throughout the Cold War. All the old Cold War Nato practices remain – including its commitment to “first use” of nuclear weapons if it deems such use to be necessary. But immediately after the fall of the Stalinist states in 1991, Nato redefined its aims so that “out of area” operations became part of a new “strategic concept”. At first this was seen as primarily a “peacekeeping” role. But, reports the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Nato’s exclusive command of the Implementation Force (IFOR) operations in Bosnia completely changed this view.” Thus the collapse of the east European regimes and Nato’s expansionism fuelled its concern with the Balkans; and its experience in the Balkans fuelled its determination to use military weight beyond its borders. At the Washington Summit, a Combined Joint Task Force for rapid force deployment in “areas of crisis” was grafted onto a revised Nato military structure.

The results of these decade long trends are enormous. The Cold War structure which underpinned the nuclear stalemate between the West and the Eastern bloc has disappeared. This means that “hot wars” are no longer pushed to the colonial and former colonial periphery of the system in the way that they were during the Cold War. These conflicts continue, though they are fought less between national liberation movements and colonial or neo-colonial regimes and more frequently between politically independent states which can quickly move from clients of the major powers to “rogue” or “terrorist” states if their interests and those of the major powers diverge. Iran, Iraq and Serbia are just the most prominent examples of the last ten years. This pattern is going to continue, if only because 75 percent of US arms sales in the past five years have been to countries whose citizens have no right to choose their own government.

Even more importantly, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has created a zone of imperialist conflict stretching from Nato’s new eastern border through the Baltic states, eastern Europe and the Balkans, through to the southern rim of Russia and the Guuam states. This economically weak and unstable region is now a major zone of rival imperial claims. The Balkans have become a contested area once again because the tectonic plates of the major powers now grind against each other in this area, just as they did before the accident of Cold War imperial geography and the long postwar boom gave them temporary respite.

The New World Order promised ten years ago will not be delivered. The imbalance between US military power and that of every other state in the world, once touted as the guarantee of a more peaceful world, now stands exposed as a source of greater instability. US military spending is greater than all the military spending of the next 13 countries ranked beneath it. Yet the US share of world trade and world manufacturing is substantially less than it was during the Cold War. This is one central reason why military might is so often the policy of choice for the US ruling class. The other reason is the economic enfeeblement of Russia. But the policy of using this weakness to carry Russia reluctantly along with Nato objectives has its limits, as the course of the Balkan War so far shows. Moreover, as Nato encroachment comes ever closer to Russia’s borders, the still enormous military machine of the Russian state may once again begin to look to the country’s leaders like its one real asset in a threatening situation.

When we see the Balkan War in context it is no surprise to find that the 1990s have already been one of the bloodiest since the Second World War in terms of war deaths. Most of those killed have been civilians. Fifty years ago half of war deaths were civilian. In the 1960s civilians accounted for 63 percent of war deaths, in the 1980s that figure rose to 74 percent, and in the 1990s the figure is higher still. Only the destruction of the imperialist system will stop this carnage.

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John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.