Globe&Mail
No more bunker mentality

ANDREI PIONTKOVSKY

Monday, May 22, 2000


Most military and political experts rightly agree that the 1999 Kosovo crisis was a key episode in Russian-NATO relations. But the conclusions from it haven't been drawn, at least not publicly, either in Moscow or in Brussels. For various reasons, they're too inconvenient for the military authorities in both capitals to acknowledge.

A year ago, in mid-May, 1999, NATO operations in Yugoslavia ran up against a dead end and the Atlantic Alliance found itself in danger of splitting over two key issues: the continuation of its air strikes against increasingly civilian targets, and the proposal to commit NATO ground forces to the conflict.

Air strikes unavoidably resulted in increased "collateral damage," dealing a severe blow to European public support for the operations. Now, democratic countries cannot wage wars without the support of their citizens, and Greece, which had come down more or less against the war from the start, was about to be joined by Italy and Germany, whose governments were on the verge of being toppled by their own parliaments over the issue. The result was a badly divided NATO.

At the same time, it had become clear that air strikes alone wouldn't achieve NATO's desired military effect -- forcing the Yugoslav army to withdraw from Kosovo. Even in modern warfare, indirect, "non-contact" action cannot replace the feet of ground soldiers marching onto territory won from the other side.

But today's Western society -- U.S. society in particular -- isn't ready to accept heavy military losses, at least not in a war that doesn't threaten its existence. The "Mogadishu factor" is at work here: If five soldiers are killed and their bodies shown on TV, the war stops.

Even with the risk of its alliance falling apart, of public humiliation, and its very rationale for the Cold War being called into question, NATO was not ready to launch ground operations. As one former NATO commander recently said, a miracle saved NATO in Kosovo. Indeed, that miracle had a name: Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former Russian prime minister who served as an envoy in negotiating an end to the crisis.

Thus, in the first military operation in its 50-year history, NATO showed itself to be a highly ineffective military organization.

First, as an alliance of 19 sovereign democratic countries, each sensitive to public opinion, it is an unwieldy decision-making body when dealing with complicated military matters.

Second, because it measures unacceptable military losses in tens of soldiers -- if not in individual soldiers.

NATO's new strategy, adopted at its 50th anniversary session in Washington, and providing for "humanitarian intervention" beyond the scope of its charter, proved stillborn. Kosovo was the first and last test of its viability.

This is the main lesson of the Kosovo conflict. NATO's military experts know this, but prefer not to talk about it aloud.

Russia's military experts know it, too, but it's not in their interests to rein in the anti-NATO, anti-Western hysteria that has the Russian political class in its grip. They prefer to keep alive the slogan: "Yesterday Yugoslavia, tomorrow Russia." It's easier that way to lobby for increased defence spending, which Russia's impoverished army so badly needs.

But we in Russia have to take a realistic view of the world around us and realize that today's democratic, well-fed, hedonistic, post-industrial West is not a military threat for Russia.

Political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky is director of the Centre of Strategic Research in Moscow.



Original article