Belgrade during NATO bombing of Yugoslavia | GNU Affero General Public License Belgrade during NATO bombing of Yugoslavia | GNU Affero General Public License

Nato’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999 was a prelude to the war in Ukraine, says Dragan Plavšić 

Last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Nato’s 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia (then made up of what are today the separate states of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo). Led by the US and UK and supported by Nato members, especially France, Germany and Turkey, the war was never authorised by the UN Security Council, making it as illegal as Russia’s war on Ukraine today.

Nevertheless, there were those in 1999 who brushed the issue of illegality aside in favour of what they said was the greater moral purpose. The bombing, they argued, was an act of selfless humanitarian intervention undertaken to defend the Kosovo Albanians from Serbian state oppression. Essential for the peace and security of the Balkans and Europe, they claimed the war was a new beginning, a definitive break with the cynical old ways of state realpolitik, for Nato’s actions were now guided by the principles of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy.

Then there were those of us in 1999 – the anti-war left inside and outside parliament – who saw things altogether differently. We argued that the bombing was part and parcel of the broader geopolitics of US-led Nato expansion towards Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact (its version of Nato). In fact, three former Warsaw Pact countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – joined Nato in the very month bombing began. The war was a ruthless act of imperialist opportunism waged to stamp Nato’s authority on Eastern Europe. It would lead to more wars, we said.

Who had the better of these arguments should now be clear to any reasonable observer of subsequent events. Nato’s defeat of Serbia in 1999 was won by overwhelming air power, especially US and UK air power, with Washington and London emboldened by what they imagined their military prowess might achieve elsewhere. As triumphalism gave way to hubris, they launched their devastating wars on Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

From Serbia to Ukraine

But the straightest line that can be drawn is the one between the bombing of Yugoslavia and the most destructive war in Europe since 1939-45, the war in Ukraine. What links them is Nato’s insatiable expansionism. Having absorbed most of the rest of Eastern Europe into membership after 1999, Ukraine promises to be its biggest and most important prize of all.

Speaking in 1995, President Clinton’s one-time Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, drew attention to Ukraine’s significance in these Orwellian terms: ‘…some states of the former Soviet Union command particular attention because of their potential to influence the future of the region. Ukraine is critical. With its size and its position, juxtaposed between Russia and Central Europe, it is a linchpin of European security.’ But what Christopher saw as a linchpin of European security, Russia saw as a linchpin of Russian security, with the stage increasingly set for a clash of imperialisms.

In February 2008, the US ambassador to Moscow, William Burns, cabled Washington that ’NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains “an emotional and neuralgic” issue for Russia’. Moscow, he wrote, was ‘particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene.’

Nevertheless, in April 2008, at its Bucharest conference, Nato officially ‘welcome[d] Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.’ The bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was therefore a prelude to the civil war that broke out in Ukraine in 2014 and Russia’s brutal invasion of 2022. The remorseless logic of Nato expansionism ties these wars together.

This is why a terrible war a quarter of a century ago between imperialism and a small Balkan state, lasting 78 days, is now a cataclysmic proxy war between two imperialisms lasting over two years. It’s why a war that killed hundreds or thousands (estimates vary) is now a war killing hundreds of thousands. And it’s why a dangerous war 25 years ago is now a war bristling with catastrophic potential, including nuclear escalation, not seen since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The latest threat is to send in Nato ground troops. Meanwhile, the head of the British army talks of war with Russia and the need for conscription.

The bombing of Yugoslavia was the start of a long and bloody road now playing itself out in the Ukraine war. Nothing can be achieved by continuing to wage it, except needless loss of life and the threat of a still more devastating conflict. An immediate ceasefire in Ukraine is as essential as an end to Nato expansion.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).