Twenty years ago, on March 24, 1999, NATO aircraft dropped the first bombs on Yugoslavia, a sovereign and independent country. The air attacks were preceded by the absolutely symbolic negotiations at Rambouillet that resulted in the US and the UK putting forward a demand that 30,000 NATO troops be deployed in Kosovo, which amounted to Belgrade’s actual loss of control over that territory. Henry Kissinger wrote that the “Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.”
The nearest analogy is the ultimatum, with which Austro-Hungary presented Serbia in the summer of 1914. But at that period of time, Serbia was backed by Russia and France. The question, who is to blame for the Kosovo crisis assuming the scale it did, is a rhetorical one. The hard fact is that NATO, for the first time in its history, launched a massive military operation without a UN Security Council sanction, targeting a peaceful European state that threatened not a single NATO member.
The NATO aggression against Yugoslavia was one of the most memorable episodes of that historical period that followed hard on the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of the contemporary world order. The other episodes are the invasion of Iraq (2003), the intervention in Libya (2011), and certain other lesser pranks. Regrettably, it was also force that put an end to these outrages rather than Law, international law, embodied in the UN Security Council. The Russian interference in Syria both dispelled all dreams of a “caliphate” and made it clear to the US and its allies that they no longer had the sole authority to punish or pardon anyone. Two years before that, in the spring of 2014, Russia stripped the US of its monopoly on handling international law as it pleased in cases where human lives were at stake.
After the Cold War, there was no one to defend from. So, NATO’s operation against Yugoslavia was an act of aggression made possible by the self-will of Western powers as well as Belgrade’s technological backwardness and its lack of allies. Russia was openly siding with Belgrade but was unable to assist it because Romania and Bulgaria had closed their airspace to Russian transport aircraft.
What shocked Russia the most in 1999 was the West’s unity: Europe that had been viewed by Moscow as an alternative to the “evil” United States all of a sudden joined their overseas ally. Russia realized for the first time that “West is West,” and, all fine words notwithstanding, France or Italy were closer to the US as parties to its global military dominance. By the way, in terms of combat sorties the French air force was second only to the US and far ahead of the UK or Germany. A thing to note: this was before France rejoined the NATO military organization under President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008.
Starting from the Yugoslav operation, NATO has consistently evolved into a combination of a cultural phenomenon and a strictly controlled military bloc. As a cultural phenomenon, NATO is an elite club. Being one of its members is a matter of prestige and a sign of belonging to a high caste. An eternal feature, the caste organization of the international community grew even more pronounced after the Cold War, but with a greater mobility between the castes. The states, which were willing to join the ruling crust even on highly restricted terms, could do that. But they had to pay a price by renouncing any claims to independent thinking or moves.
This system, which in theory could have become long-lived and efficient, was tottering on the verge of collapse several years after its emergence. The reason was that the hegemon, as distinct from the 1947-1991 Cold War period, no longer needs it. The West European allies of the United States are too weak and hesitant. Russia and China are not united or inspired enough to jointly challenge the US domination of most world affairs. America’s new policy vis-à-vis NATO is scaring its European allies. But there is no way of preserving the bloc other than doing Washington’s bidding. After all, it is only NATO that provides at least some guarantees of security.
Prospectively, NATO will be leaving the European and global military-political stage as an independent player. To maintain its leadership, the US has little need of institutions. It is the EU that will attempt to revitalize NATO. But in all evidence, a more or less interesting history of this entity is over, its integrity being dissolved in its numerous member-countries whose contribution to common security is sliding below what is minimally needed, while its main contributor, the US, will do away with even a semblance of democracy within its ranks, for which it has no use. What does this mean for Russia? In any case, it should not seek to restart a political dialogue with NATO. This dialogue is only legitimizing the alliance and giving it a sense of purpose. But NATO itself is already a historical relic.