When pushing for a US intervention in Syria in 2012 then State Department chief Hillary Clinton explicitly argued that Russia would not react, particularly because it had done “little more” but “complain” during United States’ war on Yugoslavia in 1999. The Clinton email release has revealed she argued:
The second step is to develop international support for a coalition air operation.
Russia will never support such a mission, so there is no point operating through the UN Security Council.
Some argue that U.S. involvement risks a wider war with Russia. But the Kosovo example shows otherwise.
In that case, Russia had genuine ethnic and political ties to the Serbs, which don’t exist between Russia and Syria, and even then Russia did little more than complain.
Russian officials have already acknowledged they won’t stand in the way if intervention comes.
Hillary almost got it right. For over four years of Syria’s civil war Russia did indeed stay on the sidelines even as US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey did not. Moreover its foray into Syria was something Moscow itself only begun to consider in 2015.
Nonetheless, Hillary should have really been more careful in her analysis. Firstly, she should have appreciated the difference between Russia under Yeltsin and Russia under Putin.
Secondly, she should have remembered that actually even Yeltsin’s Russia had surprised everyone by coming to the aid of Yugoslavia in 1999 but was then forced to back down.
On June 11, 1999 – that is after Yugoslavia and NATO had reached an armistice agreement at Kumanovo, but before the retreat of the Yugoslav military allowed NATO to enter and occupy Kosovo – 250 Russian troops which had been part of a Western-led peacekeeping force in neighboring Bosnia crossed over into Serbia and dashed southward occupying the Priština airport in Kosovo before the arrival of NATO troops.
It seemed as if the Russians would now airlift in more troops from Russia itself and present NATO with a fait accompli of a separate Russian occupation zone in northern Kosovo. However, after a few tense hours Moscow backed down and agreed there would only be an American, Italian, German, French and British occupation zones, but not a Russian one. The Russian contingent would instead be dispersed and serve under other commands.
Four years later Putin ended Russia’s presence in Kosovo realizing that its troops under NATO command served no useful purpose, except perhaps to help legitimize NATO’s presence there.
In retrospect it is easy to see that Russia’s 1999 Priština airfield gambit was doomed from the start.
Russia at the time was a weak power with a leadership which looked to west for loans and support against domestic rivals. Moreover, its strategic position in the Balkans was non-existent.
Hillary in 2012 remembers “genuine political ties” between 1990s Russia and Yugoslavia, but these simply did not exist.
For most of the 1990s Russia fell in line with Washington’s Balkan policies which singled out Slobodan Milošević as a uniquely rogue leader and source of all the regions’ problems. In went along with UN sanctions against Yugoslavia in 1992 and again in 1998, as well as a string of other US-proposed UN Resolutions on the Yugoslav wars.
As a result when Moscow in 1999 finally came out from Washington’s spell it had no relationship with Belgrade to speak of.
As it was the Russian Priština airfield gambit fell through when Romania and Bulgaria refused to allow Russians to fly military transports through their airspace.
However, we can note that Bulgarian and Turkish airspace was not needed for Russian soldiers to land in Syria. They arrived by sea.
Russians could have just as easily used the maritime route in 1999 to disembark in Yugoslavia’s Adriatic ports. But this would have required someone in Moscow to have entertained the thought of doing Yugoslavia a solid before June 11, 1999.
It would have taken troop transports that were already parked off the Adriatic coast and a measure of trust and coordination between Moscow and Belgrade – which empathically did not exist.
What really prevented Russia from successfully throwing a wrench in NATO’s plans in 1999 was not the non-cooperation of Bulgaria and Romania, but the fact Moscow had only just broken free from its servility to Washington two minutes earlier.
By comparison, albeit Russia only begun to consider intervening in Syria in 2015, it always maintained a direct line to Damascus and throughout never abandoned it to US appetites completely.
The 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was important in waking up a pliant, pro-American Russia to Washington’s triumphalism and militarism. Russia’s Syria intervention sixteen years later is one of the consequences.