Policy Review
December 1999/January 2000
Alan W. Dowd 

WHEN NATO’s FOUNDING FATHERS convened in Washington to create the Alliance in 1949, their primary concern was protecting Western Europe from the Red Army — not smothering ethnic quarrels in the Balkans. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously and bluntly described the organization’s mission as "keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

For two generations, the Alliance succeeded in this three-pronged mission. But NATO did more than block Moscow’s march across Europe, maintain a transatlantic bridge, and rehabilitate Germany. Remarkably, old enemies became allies under NATO’s umbrella; and Western Europe, the main battleground for two world wars, became a zone of peace and stability. Today, NATO is attempting to expand that zone into Eastern Europe.

NATO’s Washington Summit in April 1999 served to underscore the organization’s newfound concern for the East. Alliance leaders used the occasion to unveil a new Strategic Concept — a kind of twenty-first century mission statement that views Europe as a whole, taking into account the dangers posed to the West by instability and ethnic conflict in the East.

The Strategic Concept serves to clarify NATO’s expanding role in the so-called "Euro-Atlantic area," which includes not only NATO nations, but the Balkans, former members of the Warsaw Pact, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and even Russia. Bound by the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas, this once-forgotten half of Europe is where NATO will put its new mission statement into practice, and, in its own words, make "full use of every opportunity to build an undivided continent by promoting and fostering the vision of a Europe whole and free."

Kosovo afforded the Alliance such an opportunity, and NATO seized it. The resulting 11-week war revealed that 50 years after Lord Ismay, NATO’s mission may now be described as keeping an eye on the Russians, keeping Eastern Europe stable, and keeping the Allies on the same page.

A chill from the East

EVEN AS NATO pursues the idyllic goal of an undivided continent, Alliance leaders have retained enough clear-eyed realism to remind would-be foes — and each other — that "NATO’s essential and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security" of member states, in the words of the April 1999 Strategic Concept. That traditional mission of the Alliance — which many Western leaders had deemed a relic of the Cold War — returned to the fore in Kosovo, where the deep differences between Russia and NATO were finally exposed.

Remarkably, some blame NATO for the new Cold War chill in Europe. Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin condemned NATO as the cause of "serious deterioration in Russia-U.S. contacts." Members of Congress and American journalists blamed NATO’s Kosovo policy for scuttling any hopes of long-term cooperation with Moscow. Indeed, Rep. Curt Weldon, who heads a congressional delegation that meets regularly with members of the Russian Duma, concluded that, "our actions in Kosovo may be creating an environment that will clear the way for a resurgence of hard-line extremism in Russia. We are now in a situation where the Russian people may elect a Communist President and Duma, erasing all of the advances that we have made since the end of the Cold War."

Weldon’s fears may be akin to lamenting the onset of winter after an extended and mild autumn. The reality is that NATO’s disagreements with Moscow have been papered over for almost a decade. Contrary to Chernomyrdin, and many in Congress, the Kosovo war did not trigger East-West tensions; it merely uncovered a number of serious differences of view and provided a stark indication that Russia is years away from playing a constructive role in Europe. Chernomyrdin himself conceded that in Kosovo, "NATO’s goals run counter to Russia’s" — a telling assessment that could apply to scores of other European security issues, from human rights and ethnic violence to weapons sales and arms reduction. Fought behind the old division lines of the Cold War, the Kosovo war demonstrated how far we have come in the last decade. But the contentious interplay between Moscow and NATO reminds us how far apart Russia remains from the West.

During Operation Allied Force, Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared that World War III was imminent. Chernomyrdin then doused the diplomatic situation with gasoline, warning that, "The world has never in this decade been so close as now to the brink of nuclear war."

But it was the Kremlin’s behavior that threatened to escalate and metastasize the Kosovo war. We know that Yeltsin dispatched warships to intercept NATO’s military transmissions and shared the fruits of this eavesdropping operation with Milosevic. It is believed that Russia resupplied Belgrade and even sent mercenaries to Kosovo. There is also strong evidence that Moscow provided battlefield-level intelligence and support to the Serbs. When asked during a postwar press briefing if a Russian colonel and captain were among those killed or captured in battles between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav Third Army, NATO commander Wesley Clark effectively confirmed the reports with an astonishing response: "I don’t know whether they were retired, whether they were former military, whether they were mercenaries."

But Moscow saved its most reckless act for the end of the war, deploying 200 troops to Pristina after promising not to send them across the Kosovo border. Just hours earlier, Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, had assured U.S. and NATO officials that the Russian brigade would remain in Serbia proper until Russia’s role and placement in Kosovo were finalized. Those assurances were either intentionally false or recklessly ignored by the Russian military. There really can be no other explanation, and neither of those explanations is reassuring: If the Kremlin lied to the White House and Brussels at such a critical hour, what else will it lie about? And even more ominous, if the Kremlin cannot control its army, what’s the next surprise a Russian general will spring on Russia’s civilian leadership and the world?

This pattern of undependable behavior cannot be attributed solely to Yeltsin’s flagging health, as some suggest. The Russian Duma, while politically weak, is already dominated by communists and ultranationalists who want to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. Their power is checked by a constitution that grants the president near-dictatorial authority, but their growing numbers give us an indication of what the Russian people believe: Perhaps they view the West not as a partner, but as the source of humiliation and defeat.

While their blame may be misdirected, their discontent is well-founded. The Russian economy has contracted by 40 percent since 1991, and continues to shrink this year. The Russian inflation rate is a staggering 84 percent. After a brief period of stabilization in 1994, the unemployment rate is 12 percent and rising. The ruble is worthless, sometimes depreciating a percentage point per day. The massive loan scandal currently unraveling in Russia has already dried up international aid and promises to make things much worse.

For Russians, NATO’s air war over Serbia — conducted with a sometimes patronizing nod to Moscow — was another indication of how weak their country has become. A decade ago, the Red Army guarded a global empire. Today, it begs for supplies from former enemies: The Russian brigade that raced into Pristina was reduced to asking British troops for water, food, and fuel. This underscores an important truth. Moscow didn’t want to fight for Kosovo, and probably couldn’t even if it had wanted to. Despite all its threats and warnings and surprises, Moscow’s conduct during the Kosovo war amounted to little more than bluster, a distraction and an annoyance but ultimately only a sideshow to the main event.

Even so, the episode underscored that NATO’s enduring and primary mission is to keep an eye on the Russians. Indeed, one of Kosovo’s silver linings may be the growing recognition among Western leaders that Russia is not a partner — at least not yet.

Lessons learned

LIKE THE NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY itself, which was forged as Stalin consolidated the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe and attempted to destabilize Western Europe, NATO’s revised mission statement is as much a product of fear as hope: While the Alliance hopes that Russia will become a responsible member of Europe, it fears a replay of the Kosovo surprises or worse, the return of some form of Cold War. And while the Alliance hopes that Europe’s two halves can be brought together peacefully, it fears that instability in the East will infect the West. NATO saw that happen in its first post-Cold War challenge, sitting idle while the United Nations, European Union, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe all failed in the former Yugoslavia.

While there is plenty of blame to go around for the debacle in Croatia and Bosnia, European leaders made a critical mistake early on by attempting to end the war apart from NATO, and two American presidents made a critical mistake by letting them try. Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jacques Poos, who called the war in Yugoslavia "the hour of Europe," typified Western Europe’s attitude at the onset of hostilities. The Europeans saw in the Balkans a chance to prove their cohesiveness and maturity, a place where they could showcase what they had learned during the Cold War. And in an ironic way, they did just that — by reminding both sides of the Atlantic of what happens when the United States doesn’t lead in Europe.

As historian William Pfaff observes, the Europeans were "unable to act collectively and refused to act individually. . . . The existence of the European Community and of the United Nations," Pfaff wrote in The Wrath of Nations, "actually proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally."

As the casualties mounted in Bosnia, the finger-pointing began in Brussels. Some blamed Germany for prematurely recognizing Slovenia and Croatia, which accelerated Yugoslavia’s inevitable dissolution. Their blame was misplaced: Yugoslavia would have come unglued with or without Helmut Kohl’s blessing. Indeed, one could argue that earlier recognition by Washington may have given the Serbs pause.

The Americans criticized Europe for lacking the clout needed to keep the peace. The Europeans blamed Washington for lacking the will to join them. Both sides were right: Europe was unable to keep the peace in its own backyard. Dozens of empty threats and scores of meaningless cease-fires revealed the limits of European power. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Clinton administration’s failure to give the Europeans firm assurances that the U.S. would protect and reposition peacekeepers sent a signal that Washington was taking Poos at his word.

Exasperated, a handful of NATO members called for air strikes. Others warned that air strikes would put the peacekeepers at risk. When the pinprick air attacks finally came, they were haphazard and fettered by the U.N.

The Americans and Turks then roiled the rest of the Alliance by proposing to arm the outgunned Bosnian Muslims. Washington ultimately did just that, covertly subcontracting Iran for the job and thereby exposing Western Europe’s backyard to Islam’s most radical force. (Europeans still bristle over Clinton national security advisor Anthony Lake’s short-sighted policy gamble.)

Not only was Yugoslavia coming apart, so was the West. And one of the central reasons was NATO’s — and hence, America’s — limited role in the effort to restore peace. As Pfaff notes, Europe’s failure and America’s acquiescence dealt a brutal blow to the idea that "democracies possessed the capacity, or the will, to enlarge that zone of pacification and cooperation created inside the western political community. It even raised the question of whether that achievement would last."

Indeed, it could be argued that after four years of inaction, 250,000 deaths, and 2 million refugees, NATO finally summoned the will to intervene in Bosnia not for Sarajevo’s sake, but for its own preservation. When NATO finally broke loose from the U.N. command structure and took the lead role, the West came together and the Bosnia war rapidly ended. The reluctant Americans and the overly ambitious Europeans had relearned a valuable lesson: As Margaret Thatcher once said, "Europe separated from the U.S. is unequivocally a bad thing."

Not surprisingly, it took just months for the Alliance to agree to intervene in Kosovo, a Connecticut-sized swath of Yugoslavia. While Kosovo itself may be of little importance to the United States, stability in Europe and cohesiveness in NATO are of vital importance, and have been since the end of World War II. Both were threatened by the open wound Kosovo had become — and by the possibility of another draining ethnic war in the center of Europe. In this sense, NATO’s air war on Serbia could be viewed as an act of preemptive self-defense, the organization’s way of protecting itself from the corrosive effects of another Bosnia.

Kosovo as mid-life crisis

IF NOTHING ELSE, Operation Allied Force should put to rest the running argument about NATO’s relevance. At middle age, NATO proved it was not only relevant but essential to keeping the peace in Europe. NATO’s interwoven humanitarian-military-diplomatic operation in and around Kosovo was staggering in its proportions and historic in its results.

If the Allies were surprised by the speed of Milosevic’s ethnic blitzkrieg, they were by no means unprepared. NATO had pre-positioned 36,000 tons of food, 13,000 troops, and 400 aircraft in the region. More of each would quickly pour in. During Allied Force, the Alliance would feed, house, and clothe 850,000 people for three months, and then lead them home. In fact, as Jane’s Defence Weekly observes, "Kosovo is the only case in modern history where a systematic removal of ethnic groups has been reversed."

To achieve that end, the Alliance launched some 38,000 sorties and dropped 26,000 bombs or missiles, with only two combat losses and just 20 incidents of collateral damage. Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, termed the U.S.-led air war "an amazing tactical and technical achievement."

As NATO pilots went to war above tiny Kosovo, NATO diplomats quietly bolstered the governments within reach of Milosevic’s armies, likewise achieving impressive objectives. Even as Belgrade tried to destabilize the entire region with waves of refugees, threats, and a handful of failed air raids into Bosnia, NATO responded with a promise of protection. Smothering the regional powder keg Milosevic hoped to ignite, the Alliance gave written assurances to Serbia’s neighbors that they would be protected in the event of Serbian cross-border incursions. "Your security," wrote NATO Secretary General Javier Solana in an extraordinary letter to the governments of Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovenia, "is of direct and material concern to the Alliance."

A statement made just days later took the Alliance even further and brought Europe’s two halves closer together than they had been in perhaps 60 years: "The security of all NATO member states," intoned Solana, "is inseparably linked to that of all Partner countries," a reference to the 25 East European and Eurasian states that cooperate with NATO on political and military matters. NATO backed up the words by deploying some 12,000 additional troops to the Balkan region. According to Gen. Clark, this "dramatically changed the security environment and the sense of confidence of the government of Albania."

NATO moves eastward

KOSOVO IS HARDLY Eastern Europe’s only ethnic minefield. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, "Yugoslavia’s may be the war of the future: one waged between different tribes, harboring centuries-old grudges about language, religion, and territory, and provoking bitterness for generations to come." That description applies to many of Eastern Europe’s peoples. Millions of Russians, Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, and other ethnic minority groups live outside the borders of their parent countries, setting the stage for other ethnic wars, launched by other dictators, in the name of other hatreds.

Through expansion and early intervention, NATO hopes to deaden or at least isolate these hatreds and the conflicts they spawn. "An important aim of the Alliance," concluded NATO leaders at the Washington Summit, "is to keep risks at a distance by dealing with potential crises at an early stage." While NATO failed to do this in Bosnia and certainly could have acted earlier in Kosovo (2,500 Kosovars were killed before Operation Allied Force began), it has cleared a number of other ethnic minefields with dispatch and foresight.

Not only did Allied Force prevent Milosevic from smothering Kosovo, it diminished longer-term threats to the Alliance posed by future Balkan wars. Some observers wondered why so much of NATO’s bombing early in the Kosovo War was concentrated on bridgework and roadways far north of Belgrade. The answer may be as simple as the ethnic makeup of northern Yugoslavia, which is populated by half a million ethnic Hungarians. Their parent country shares a border with Serbia and is one of NATO’s newest members. By cutting the main arteries between that region and the bulk of the Serbian army, NATO effectively forestalled a Kosovo-style crackdown, which might have destabilized Hungary and thus hobbled the Alliance. (In fact, Serbian troops bombed a town inside Hungary’s borders during the Bosnian-Croat phase of Milosevic’s nine-year war.)

Montenegro, Yugoslavia’s defiant junior republic, is edging toward independence. If Milosevic is still in power when Montenegro finally cuts itself loose from the carcass that is Yugoslavia, another Balkan war could ignite. But owing to NATO’s forward-looking decision to limit air attacks in Montenegro, Yugoslavia’s seaside province emerged from the war squarely against Belgrade and behind NATO. Should Belgrade move on Montenegro, NATO’s response promises to be even more rapid than it was in Kosovo, a fact of which Milosevic is well aware. According to Clark, "Milosevic has been warned on many occasions and in many different ways that the strains between Serbia and Montenegro must be peacefully worked out." Milosevic may take such a warning more seriously this time because of NATO’s show of resolve in Kosovo.

Just days before the bombs fell on Kosovo and Serbia, NATO added three members from across the invisible East-West divide — Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The region is reaping the benefits of their membership: As a precondition of joining NATO, Hungary had to iron out long-standing problems with Romania, as did Poland and Lithuania. The mere possibility of NATO membership prompted Romania to settle territorial and ethnic disputes with Ukraine. The same is true for Albania and its improved treatment of Greek minorities.

The practical value of cooperation between NATO and East European states — and indeed the effectiveness of NATO’s influence — became apparent after the Kosovo war, as Russia tried to reinforce its presence at the Pristina airport. In an unprecedented display of solidarity — based not on ethnic similarity or political intrigue, but on the pursuit of justice and peace — NATO aspirants Romania and Bulgaria joined NATO members in denying overflight rights to Russia’s massive Ilyushin transport jets, thus preventing Moscow from springing another surprise on the Alliance.

With the war and its many surprises now behind them, NATO nations are crafting a latter-day Marshall Plan for Southeastern Europe, promising to bring peace and stability to a region in desperate need of both. In effect, NATO is prepared to do in Eastern Europe in the twenty-first century what it did in Western Europe in the twentieth century.

The limits of NATO

SOME SCOFF AT NATO’s eastward lurch as an attempt to recreate the Alliance. Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo borders the Atlantic Ocean, they say. Nor does Poland, the Czech state, or Hungary. But nor do long-time NATO members Turkey, Italy, or Greece. Yet NATO protects all of them in one way or another, extending a zone of stability far beyond what Lord Ismay could have envisioned 50 years ago.

Even so, when viewed through the lens of NATO’s founding document, NATO expansion and the Kosovo intervention itself make strategic and historical sense. The North Atlantic Treaty calls on signatories to "promote stability in the North Atlantic area." NATO’s founders purposely left this area undefined, allowing it to expand as necessary. As the Alliance grew from a cluster of nations bordering the Atlantic Ocean into a wide swath of the northern hemisphere, eventually stretching across three continents and encompassing 780 million people, NATO’s ability and responsibility to stabilize Europe expanded accordingly.

Turkey was added even though it had more in common with the Middle East than Western Europe. Germany joined even though it had gone to war against most of the Alliance just nine years earlier. Spain was invited into the club of Atlantic democracies despite its questionable commitment to democratic values. Each new member took NATO into uncharted geographic or political territory, but the new members, the Alliance, and the continent were rewarded for taking those risks.

If Kosovo is such a risk and a portent of things to come, then the Alliance must tackle some serious challenges.

First, NATO governments need to learn how to fight war and keep peace by committee. Gen. Klaus Naumann, the retiring chief of NATO’s military committee, noted, "We need to find a way to reconcile the conditions of coalition war with the principle of military operations such as surprise and overwhelming force. We did not apply either in Allied Force, and this cost time, effort, and potentially additional casualties."

Indeed, Allied Force’s initial target list of thousands was chopped down to hundreds by NATO’s less-hawkish members, which lengthened the war. In the first hours of the war, Greece called for a bombing pause. Italy was quick to follow, giving Milosevic good reason to believe the Alliance would crack if he held out long enough. Taking their cues from President Clinton, every NATO leader but Britain’s Tony Blair promised not to mount a ground invasion, allowing Milosevic to disperse his forces and accelerate the purges. In fact, German leader Gerhard Schröder publicly dismissed Britain’s suggestion of a ground invasion. And Hungary flatly rejected the use of its territory in a ground assault.

If changes aren’t made, disagreements over tactics and procedures could paralyze future NATO commanders and doom NATO’s next intervention in the East. As former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski observed, "The Normandy landings never could have been carried out under the procedures NATO followed in Kosovo."

Second, if NATO is to be successful in stabilizing Eastern Europe, its European members must begin to devote more resources to their militaries. The American people will quickly lose patience with expensive and dangerous mini-wars if it appears that the West Europeans are not pulling their weight. And if the West Europeans fail to invest in advanced technologies, they will have no other alternative or role in Eastern Europe than underwriting the Americans.

A recent study by the Economist revealed that only 10 percent of Europe’s combat aircraft are capable of precision bombing. This is perhaps unsurprising given that among NATO’s 19 members only Turkey, Greece, Britain, and the United States  routinely devote 4 percent or more of gdp to defense. Of course, even that is misleading since most defense spending in Turkey and Greece is focused not on stabilizing Eastern Europe, but on preparing to fight each other.

This asymmetry of military power was evident throughout the Kosovo war. Over 65 percent of the aircraft participating in the war were American. The imbalance is even more pronounced when only combat sorties are considered. Indeed, only eight nations flew combat missions. As Lt. General Michael Short, the key planner of the air war, bluntly concluded, "we’ve got an a Team and a b Team now."

Even so, NATO’s European members are making strides on the ground. In Bosnia, for example, Americans accounted for over one-third of the total ground force. In Kosovo, however, the U.S. is contributing only 15 percent of the 43,000-man peacekeeping force, with the Europeans contributing the rest.

Finally, NATO members also must practice what they preach and temper their own nationalist instincts. Greece, with old ties to Serbia and long-standing distrust for Turkey, blocked Turkish planes from crossing Greek airspace. Remarkably, the Greek government also temporized about

granting docking rights to U.S. troop carriers. The Greeks ultimately allowed the Marines to land, albeit grudgingly.

National pride seeped into NATO’s military structure as well. It is now known that NATO’s military chief, Wesley Clark, and NATO’s Kosovo peacekeeping commander, Michael Jackson, came to verbal blows over Russia’s surprise advance into Kosovo. When Clark ordered Jackson to deploy a British helicopter assault team to block the Russians at the Pristina airport, the British general refused, effectively leaving Clark with an unpalatable choice between firing his ground commander on the eve of ground operations or awkwardly rescinding the order. Underscoring the limits of NATO solidarity, Jackson ended the dispute — and perhaps Clark’s NATO career — with a terse and chilling rejoinder: "I’m not going to start World War III for you."

The result of such internal disputes was a war that took weeks rather than days to finish, and a peace that almost was lost.

Clearly, there are strains within the Alliance and challenges yet to face. Another round of expansion looms; new ethnic conflicts simmer; Western Europe must come to grips with bigger defense budgets; and Moscow still needs basic reform. But a U.S.-led NATO ought to be able to meet these challenges. And that’s certainly preferable to the alternative — trying to tackle Europe’s many problems without NATO.

NATO’s Sicily?

THANKFULLY — for NATO and for Europe — Kosovo wasn’t Normandy. But if the Alliance draws the right lessons from Kosovo, as it did from Bosnia, it could be NATO’s Sicily.

In July 1943, 450,000 British and American troops squared off against just 60,000 Germans on the island of Sicily. Though hampered by mass desertions within the Italian Army, the Nazis held the island for over a month.

The Allies, while backed by a vast naval and air armada, failed to coordinate their attacks. In his weighty history of World War II, A World at Arms, Gerhard Weinberg heaps criticism on the Allies for the "horrendous errors" made as a result of poor coordination between Allied air and naval commanders. Naval guns were fired haphazardly, diluting their effectiveness. Hundreds of paratroopers drowned or were gunned down in the resulting chaos and friendly fire. In fact, as Weinberg noted, "airborne forces suffered as much from Allied as from Axis fire." Those who survived were dropped miles from their target landing zones, rendering them combat-ineffective. Spread across Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, and riven with personality conflicts, the Allied command ultimately allowed the Germans to evacuate the bulk of their army across the Messina Straits and onto the Italian mainland.

The British-American force that invaded Sicily, like the NATO air armada that pounded Serbia, miscalculated everything from the enemy’s motivation and tenacity to its own military capabilities. The parallels to NATO’s Kosovo war don’t end there: By the end of the Sicily campaign, an American general and a British general — back then, it was Patton and Montgomery — were at each other’s throats. The time and place may have changed, but the nature of coalition warfare has not.

Gen. Omar Bradley would later say of the invasion: "Seldom in war has a major operation been undertaken in such a fog of indecision, confusion, and conflicting plans." Allied generals squabbled over timing, strategy, who was in charge, and who was to blame. But they never disagreed on the objective. After 38 days and 20,000 casualties, the Allies liberated Sicily, paving the way for the invasions of Italy and France, the liberation of Europe, and the end of the war. But that would be two years away.

The invasion of Sicily was not perfect, but as one World War II chronicler wrote, "If nothing else, it demonstrated that there was homework to be done." What the Allies learned in Sicily was critical to their success at Normandy. They had their troubles, but they won the battle. And then they won the war.

If NATO does its work and remains united, it will stabilize the East and realize its noble vision of a Europe "whole and free." But that is a long way off. On June 16, just days after NATO troops gingerly entered Kosovo, a British brigadier general let a group of Western journalists in on a military secret: "It takes time, patience, and courage to clear a minefield." The general’s assessment could just as well apply to NATO’s role in Eastern Europe, where the Alliance has planted its banner and staked its future. NATO’s new mission statement is taking the Alliance into uncharted territory, littered with diplomatic, historical, and actual minefields. It will take time, patience, and courage to clear them.