NATO’s Bombing of Yugoslavia Was Textbook State Terrorism

Unable to defeat its military NATO shifted to waging war on Yugoslavia's civilians

NATO found a certain level of civilian fatalities not just acceptable but welcome

Terrorism is a tactic seeking to accomplish political goals by attacking civilian targets. It is a tactic that is resorted to by entities that feel they lack other means of bringing about their goals.

Terrorist groups feel themselves too weak to battle armies and so battle civilians instead. States, however, may likewise find themselves unable to defeat an opposing military force and to respond with a shift to targeting civilians.

One such example, of states battling civilians rather than the military, was NATO’s bombing of FR Yugoslavia in the course of the Kosovo War.

For its own political reasons NATO was unwilling to risk its forces incurring any losses in the war. Subsequently it conducted all of its bombing from attitudes above 5,000 metres, which was beyond the effective range of most anti-aircraft weapons in the possession of Army of Yugoslavia (VJ).

Unwilling to descend below 5,000 metres, however, NATO likewise found itself unable to degrade the military of its enemy. Of some 580 VJ fatalities sustained in the course of the bombing less than one half were inflicted by NATO aircraft. The rest of the fatalities were sustained in battles with the KLA.

These battles were relatively bloody, but did not affect the overall Serbian strategic position. When the bombing campaign started majority of KLA fighters withdrew from Kosovo. The remainder was broken up into small bands which were without ability to coordinate among themselves. Offensives launched from Albanian territory into direction of Kosovo-Metohija by KLA fighters supported by Albanian artillery and NATO aviation were stopped in their tracks by relatively small forces that were not highly vulnerable to air attack.

Neither NATO attacks from the air nor the KLA attacks on the ground proved capable of endangering VJ control of the province, or of diminishing its strength. It was probably within NATO’s capability to damage the Serbian military from the air, but this would have entailed risking significant casualties of its own. Unwilling to do what it would take to battle the military of the defending country NATO turned to battling its civilians.

It is possible to identify two methods by which NATO waged its one-sided war on the civilians of Serbia. Firstly, it took steps to degrade their quality of life and impose immediate hardships on the them. Hardship swhich was becoming greater as the bombing dragged on, but which would come to an end quickly if the war was to end.

Secondly, it threatened to intensify and continue the bombing until the whole of Serbian economy lay in ruins for the long-term and took steps to convince Serbians it was willing to act upon its implicit threat. Both methods presumed destruction of civilian targets. Both were employed for the purpose of coercing the general population to pressure for termination of war on NATO’s terms. As such they were straightforward examples of terrorism.

In contrast to the near negligible effect the bombing had on the military, the effect on civilians was considerable. Serbian population found their quality of life degraded in a variety of ways. In the course of the 78 day bombing campaign Belgrade alone lived through 146 air raid alerts, for a combined duration of 774 hours – an average of 9 hours and 55 minutes per day. Schools were shut down, payments to retirees were halved. Oil, sugar, washing soap, diapers, cigarettes and other basic necessities became scarce. Traveling became difficult, trips that would before take an hour or two could now take nine or ten. People had trouble checking on their relations since telephone lines were being cut in addition to power — at a time when they had every reason to worry for their safety as “collateral damage” mounted. The bombing destroyed fifty highway and railway bridges along with radio and television installations and heat plants. Attacks on electric power targets produced mayor power disruptions, causing electrical blackouts and a lack of running water in many cities, towns, and villages.

A study from Air Force Project – a “think tank” funded by the US government and managed by US Department of Defence – The Conflict over Kosovo: Why Milosevic Decided to Settle When He Did states:

“Attacks on Serbia’s electric generating system caused particularly severe hardships, as the resulting power shutdowns often denied the public both electricity and water. While contending that the strikes on infrastructure targets had legitimate military-related purposes, NATO officials also acknowledged that the attacks were aimed in part at damaging the quality of life so that suffering citizens would start questioning the intransigence of their political leadership. Lieutenant General Short, the NATO air component commander, hoped that the distress of the Yugoslav public would undermine the support for authorities in Belgrade.”

The reference to General Short, the then commander of NATO’s air component, in the above text is to the following public statement of his:

“If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, “Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?” And at some point, you make the transition from applauding Serb machismo against the world to thinking what your country is going to look like if this continues.”

At one point during the bombing NATO spokesman Jamie Shea likewise made it known:

If President Milošević really wants all of his population to have water and electricity all he has to do is accept NATO’s five conditions and we will stop this campaign.”

In a butchery of logic NATO had designated civilian targets “dual-use” on the proposition that they held some utility for the military, but was bombing them for the effect their destruction would have on the civilians.

The attacks on civilian infrastructure visibly intensified in the last four weeks of the bombing, with a view to piece by piece transform the country’s infrastructure into rubble. It was an attempt to torment its populace and degrade its quality of life, to exact collective punishment for the purpose of coercion.

For every soldier it killed NATO slew ten civilians. More than 2000 civilians were killed and at least 6000 were injured. Simultaneously hospitals regularly struggled with power blackouts. Transportation of the injured was made difficult by scarcity of fuel, collapsed bridges and periodical air raid alerts.

NATO claimed it was doing everything it could to avoid killing civilians, at the same time it was killing two dozen a day and was doing its utmost to dehumanise them as “collateral damage”. There is no doubt that NATO knew a certain number of civilian deaths would follow from its actions, and found that acceptable. In one instance NATO strategists, when planning for the strikes on Belgrade’s Ušće tower, which they believed would be felled, estimated this would result in 250 civilians deaths in the collapse, but went forward with the attack anyway.

However, it is likely NATO found a certain level of civilian casualties not just acceptable but also welcome, as a way to intensify its pressure on the Serbian population by making them fearful for the lives of their loved ones.

This is a reasonable hypothesis to put forth about an entity which employed the targeting of civilian infrastructure as the corner stone of its conduct of the war and which openly stated it saw legitimate targets in radio-television workers (Radio-Television building bombing) and employees of the Socialist Party of Serbia (Ušće tower bombing).

NATO permitted an incident like the Grdelica train bombing to take place the details of which it then attempted to cover up and misrepresent. Here the crew of a US strike plane circled over a railway bridge waiting for the moment when a passenger train moving in its direction would be on it, to only then start its attack, ostensibly against the bridge. After the first attack which immobilised the train, the aircraft returned and launched a repeat attack.

NATO claimed the destruction of the train, and the killing of twelve people and the wounding of sixteen, was not intended by the crew. It produced a video tape allegedly showing the crew simply had no time to abort their attack, but which was quickly shown to have been crudely falsified by having been sped up 4.7 times.

Grdelica train bombing, the US political leadership expected Belgrade would capitulate after three days of bombing — just in time to mark NATO’s 50th anniversary, when the war instead dragged on the generals were pressured to become creative

A similar incident happened in Varvarin, a tiny provincial town in central Serbia where missiles were launched against a bridge during daylight on a church holiday and a market day while several people were crossing either by foot or by car. This attack killed three people, severely wounded four more and partially collapsed the bridge. The strike aircraft made an overpass striking the bridge once more four or five minutes later — after a great many people had rushed onto the ruins of the bridge to try and help the wounded, killing a further seven and wounding severely a further dozen people.

At this time Thomas Friedman, an opinion writer with good connections to the corridors of power and a shill for the US government was from the pages of the New York Times calling for the bombing to kill more civilians:

“Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around. Let’s see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance.”

According to David Gibbs (First Do No Harm, 2009) Friedman at the time of the bombing was in his editorials likely speaking on behalf of elements within the Clinton administration.

Certainly if it was a hope and strategy of NATO (and in words of its generals it was) to pressure the civilian population to call for an end to the war, then a certain level of civilian fatalities on buses, trains, on bridges, in hospitals, in retirement homes, in the marketplaces and in their homes was a welcome thing for NATO to demonstrate to the population that as long as the war went on they and their family-members were not remotely safe.

Parallely the Serbian economy, already diminished by the post-socialistic restructuring, the corruption that went along with it, the hyperinflation of the early nineties, and the economic sanctions of the 1990s now found itself under assault of an enemy that by the end of the conflict was flying over 650 sorties every night.

Almost the entire oil refining capacity of the country was destroyed, along with many factories employing directly 100,000 people and indirectly providing work for many more. Among them were factories producing textiles, cigarettes, shoes, medicines, home appliances, and fertilizer. In the months of the bombing the number of people out of work increased from an already high 850,000 to a staggering 2,050,000. Lack of fuel threatened agriculture as farmers in the still moderately agricultural country agonised over getting sufficient fuel for for the oncoming harvest. Power generating facilities and electric transmission towers were being destroyed in a systematic manner.

As a relatively well-developed country with substantial industry Serbia (unlike eg Afghanistan) had plenty of targets to offer and much to lose by their destruction. Severity of the destruction already incurred and of potential future destruction was being magnified by the the imposed isolation of the sanctions regime.

With only the meagre capital on hand within the country itself, and without ability to trade, any economic capacity lost could only be rebuilt at a painstakingly slow pace. From The Conflict over Kosovo:

“According to some estimates, it was going to take Yugoslavia some 15 years just to recover to the economic level that existed prior to the start of the bombing.”

German General Klaus Naumann, a former Chief of Staff of the German army and the then Chairman of the NATO Military Committee inadvertently admitted that NATO was consciously holding Serbia’s civilian economy hostage. On April 27th 1999 he voiced concern that there may be a flaw in NATO’s strategy in assuming that Milošević was “reasonable” and “responsible” and would not allow his country “be bombed into rubble”. (In other words unless Milošević bucked that is exactly what NATO was going to do.)

NATO bombers were holding the Serbian people hostage by threatening its future existence on a material level of a civilised people. In an attempt to compel the populace to press for capitulation NATO took steps to demonstrate its willingness to destroy the means of production that provided them jobs and that every people requires if it is to live a non-primitive lifestyle. As any other terrorists the NATO aggressors were labouring to create a situation where their victim would be convinced it was better off yielding than having the hostage taker carry out its threat.

Judgements pronounced on the effectiveness of NATO’s strategy have varied. Conflict Over Kosovo from the Air Force Project predictably finds that attacks on “dual-use” targets were effective. That through the imposition of hardships on common citizens they affected the Serbian public opinion and created pressure for termination of the war.

This is a view which Barry Posen in The War for Kosovo: Serbia’s Political-Military Strategy bluntly dismisses as there being no evidence for it. For Posen the decisive factor that led to the war’s termination was instead the threat to visit future damage upon Serbian economy on a scale that would be horrendous for the Serbian populace.

Still differently, the British general Michael Jackson, has stated it was rather Russian diplomacy and Russian pressure on Belgrade that had the decisive influence, rather than anything NATO did.

A pronouncement on the effectiveness of NATO’s campaign of state terrorism against Serbians can perhaps be made by examining the terms under which the war was concluded. The terms put before Belgrade in February at Rambouillet and the agreement hammered out in Kumanovo in June were substantially different. The demands of NATO most unacceptable to Belgrade had been dropped. The final agreement was still unfavourable for Yugoslavia, however it was substantially less so.

Most crucially the Kumanovo Agreement did not include the provision that the future status of Kosovo would be decided by a referendum to be held within three years, a provision which guaranteed a speedy detachment of Kosovo from Serbia with Belgrade’s formal blessings. Also importantly, a provision granting NATO access to all of Yugoslavia — included at Rambouillet specifically to make a diplomatic settlement impossible and to make sure NATO would have the pretext to go to war — was likewise scrapped. Furthermore the occupying force would at least in theory be a UN force, not a NATO force, and the UN Security Council resolution 1244 demanded by Belgrade reaffirmed sovereignty of Yugoslavia in Kosovo. The Kumanovo Agreement was less favourable than Rambouillet in that it envisioned the withdrawal of all Serb forces, however this was offset by a provision ensuring the presence of Russian forces, additionally the 1244 resolution envisioned the eventual return of some Serbian forces.

If the terms offered at Ramboillet are understood as NATO’s war aims it has to be concluded that NATO failed to achieve all of its objectives with which it went to war. It had been denied a way by which to sever Kosovo from Yugoslavia legally.

On the face of it, the extent of the concessions made by Yugoslavia at Kumanovo were quite limited. The fact that Kosovo in 2019 is severed from Serbia is not the result of the written agreements that ended the 1999 war, but of the NATO side not abiding by its side of the deal made and getting away with it.

There is a good case in fact to be made that NATO could have gotten a very similar deal to the one it got in June without ever having gone to war in the first place, particularly if Milošević thought Washington was actually going to honor it.

However the US is notorious for habitually disregarding its end of any deal with weaker powers if it can get away with it, which is something that Milošević could have been expected to understand. Not the least because the US and its western clients had wasted no time in subverting the Dayton Agreement he had signed to bring peace to Bosnia just four years prior in 1995.

Now if Milošević signed the Kumanovo Agreement fully suspecting that NATO was not actually going to protect the Serbs and other non-Albanians of Kosovo, honour Yugoslav sovereignty over the province, disarm the KLA, or permit the eventual return of Serbian forces then it can be said that NATO indeed won a qualified “military” victory.

However, let us not kid ourselves, this was a win accomplished by a method of terrorism — unable of defeating the Yugoslav military in a soldier-vs-soldier contest NATO “won” by waging war on its civilian population instead.

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