1999: Showdown in Kosovo – Russia vs NATO, US vs Britain

A markerPristina, Kosovo -
Prishtina International Airport (PRN), 10000
[get directions]

British Balk in the Balkans

By June 1999, the Serbs had been bombed into leaving Kosovo and 30,000 NATO troops entered the Serb province to enforce the peace. The lead contingent of French and British paratroopers had been assigned to control the Pristina Airport, but when they approached it, they found 200 Russian soldiers threatening their advance. NATO commander US General Wesley Clark ordered the troops to seize the airport by force. The British questioned this order, not wanting to start World War III.


Background

When Serbia, or more properly, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, refused to halt the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, their southwest province, NATO threatened them with a bombing campaign. US Army General Wesley Clark, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), and others, believed the threat of bombing would stop the bloodshed. When it didn't, NATO, after much deliberation and hand-wringing, began bombing targets in Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999. General Clark insisted he understood Yugoslav President Milosevic and that, after three days of bombing, Milosevic would give up and withdraw from Kosovo.

After ten weeks of bombing and additional pressure from Yugoslavia's patron, Russia, Milosevic finally yielded, accepting the terms and allowing NATO as well as Russian troops to enter the province. Serb troops and police would withdraw from Kosovo. The bombing stopped on June 10.

Soviet-built T-55-tank used by Serbian military lies in ruins near Prizren, Kosovo, years after the Serbs left. 2005.
Soviet-built T-55-tank used by Serbian military lies in ruins near Prizren, Kosovo, years after the Serbs left. 2005. | Source
Military photo portrait of U.S. General Wesley Clark
Military photo portrait of U.S. General Wesley Clark | Source

Ground Troops Enter Kosovo

On June 12, 30,000 NATO troops entered the province from the south and west. Their job as peacekeepers was to ensure that the Serb forces evacuated and that neither the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) or the Serbs would attack each other while the Serbs retreated. British General Michael Jackson was in charge of all the NATO ground forces which had units from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the US. Spearheading the column was a contingent of 500 British and French paratroopers led by British Captain James Blunt. Their job was to secure the airport at Kosovo's capital, Pristina.

At the same time, Russian troops were also on the move. The Russians were not happy about being subordinated to NATO command. They wanted independence and control of their own sector. NATO, fearing this would lead to the partitioning of Kosovo into “North” and “South” Kosovo, reminiscent of so many other Cold War clashes, insisted that all troops in Kosovo be under NATO command. The Russians had decided to “make a statement”.

General Sir Mike Jackson (center) in conversation with Royal Australian Air Force officer. 2003.
General Sir Mike Jackson (center) in conversation with Royal Australian Air Force officer. 2003. | Source
US President Bill Clinton at the Pristina International Airport 5 Nov 1999, visiting KFOR soldiers at Thanksgiving.
US President Bill Clinton at the Pristina International Airport 5 Nov 1999, visiting KFOR soldiers at Thanksgiving. | Source

The Pristina Airport Incident

When Captain Blunt's paratroopers approached Pristina airport, they were surprised to find 200 Russian troops dug in and aiming their weapons at them. To underscore how serious the Russians were, the 200 soldiers were led by a Russian general. Blunt informed NATO command of the situation and General Wesley Clark then ordered the paratroopers to seize the airport by force.

Realizing that attacking Russian troops would have serious consequences, Blunt questioned the order and consulted with General Jackson. Jackson flew in to the airport and met with the Russian general himself, who greeted him coldly. Gradually, Jackson and the Russian, became less formal, Jackson providing a flask of whiskey and cigars. Jackson could see the Russians were serious-- generals don't lead 200 men into a potential combat zone. On the other hand, he also realized the Russians were isolated.

After discussions with the Russians, Jackson then met with General Clark to discuss the situation. Clark, taken aback that his orders were being questioned, repeated the order and Jackson refused, stating “Sir, I'm not going to start World War Three for you”. Realizing what he'd done-- refused an order from his commanding officer-- General Jackson next informed his British superiors and offered his resignation, which was refused. Jackson then ordered Blunt's paratroopers to encircle and cut off the Russians at the airport. As Blunt put it, Jackson said “why don't we sugar off down the road, you know, encircle the airfield instead”, which Blunt did. After two days, the Russians and NATO came to an agreement. The Russians would not be under NATO command, but their forces would be dispersed throughout Kosovo. There would be no partitioning of Kosovo. The crisis was averted.

(Ex-Captain) James Blunt playing Reading Rivermead 23rd Jan 2008
(Ex-Captain) James Blunt playing Reading Rivermead 23rd Jan 2008 | Source

Aftermath

For his leadership in Kosovo, British General Michael Jackson (AKA Mike Jackson) received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Later he became the Chief of the General Staff of the British Army. He retired from service in 2006 after nearly 45 years of military service.

US General Wesley Clark was informed a month after the airport incident that he would be prematurely replaced as SACEUR in April 2000. Failing to find a new command, he retired from service in May 2000. He then made an unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004. He has been awarded numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.

British Captain James Blunt went on to become a famous singer-songwriter, perhaps best-known for “You're Beautiful” and “1973”. His albums have sold over 18 million copies and his debut album Back to Bedlam” is the best-selling album of the 2000s in Britain.

(Former Captain) James Blunt

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Comments 13 comments

girishpuri profile image

girishpuri 4 years ago from NCR , INDIA

great historical share, interesting


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you for reading and commenting, girishpuri. Much appreciated.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

I read about this situation. moreover there was probably none mass media source which would not describe it. Jackson was definitely a clever man to act cautiously in this situation. Russians wanted "to mark their presence in the international politics" and this could cost really a lot for the whole Europe. Great hub!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you, Pavlo. Jackson was certainly aware of the bigger picture. He knew the Russians had been sorely weakened and even humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would have been a terrible mistake for NATO to have dismissed them as second-rate and to have thought that fighting them would have had few consequences. Sometimes I wonder about our American leaders' lack of historical awareness.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, peternehemia. That was the hook that got me interested in the event-- well, that and the order to take the airport from the Russians! My particular favorite by Blunt is "1973".


Keith Sutherland7 profile image

Keith Sutherland7 4 years ago from Brixham, Devon

I have never been a fan of General Jackson, but quite frankly, what you have written has given me a new perspective about the type of character he is. Consequently my humble apology to the man in question, and to James Hunt also.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks much for your comment, Keith. I've never been a fan of Wesley Clark and researching this merely reinforced my perspective.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Thank goodness for Gen. Jackson. An attack certainly could have escalated out of control. Appreciate the write David, i'm slowly but surely learning more and more about that awful conflict. Agree with you on "the lack of historical awareness." The later Georgia war showed the bear can still be very dangerous when provoked.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Right you are, Alastar. I have no idea what an American General was thinking when he thought NATO troops could attack Russian troops without major consequences.


BennyNYC 3 years ago

Wesley Clark he wanted he to push russian soldiers from Airport of kosovo capital ( Pristina ). Russia support terrorist country ( serbia ) for long time..Serbia killed 733.000 people in ballkan like in Croatia 1992-1995 after in Bosnia 1995-1998 after in Kosovo 1998-2000.

Bill Clinton he approved to attack serbia to moved out of kosovo but serbia always think russia will help them to stop USA UK and NATO to attack them but russia they would not break up relationship with western and they cannot fight against USA and UK so they moved back from airport..

i am Albanian from Kosovo and i know what happen there how people got killed for no reason..4.000 children been found without heads in garbage bags and their bodies 3 miles away and heads other side of the city..who do that ? i don't think Adolf Hitler he did in world war II against the world or to jews..i love USA and UK but strongly hate russia for rest of my life...


Branchez 2 years ago

Benny you ignorant liar have you any proof for those nonsense you wrote? I know that you don't since you just made that up. Stop spreading lies about Serbs. 4.000 children???? LOL you think if it really happened that no one would know? Wouldn't you hear that in the news? 733.000??? Hahah please tell me where you got that number. And for those bodies and heads in bags you imagine, well I have proof that Albanians did that to the Serbs in Kosovo. Also why don't you mention Yellow House and kidnapping of thousand of Serbs just to be cut open alive and their organs removed?? Why don't you mention that? For months and years Albanians committed horific crimes against Serbian people in Kosovo, and when finally Serbs decided to react you cried for NATO help which you got only because NATO needed a base (Bondstill) in Kosovo and not because those events you made up. Please do some research before spreading propaganda.


Gordan Zunar profile image

Gordan Zunar 2 years ago from New York

One of James Blunt's songs is dedicated to Kosovo, it's called No Bravery. He wrote it while serving there.

@Branchez, sure KLA committed crimes against Serbs, but what they were doing in Kosovo was just a reaction to what the Serbs were doing in Bosnia and Croatia couple of years before. As Milosevic lost three wars before that (short one in Slovenia, then long one in Croatia and Bosnia), he wanted to give it one more try in Kosovo. Of course, KLA wanted to prevent the ethnic cleansing scenario seen in Croatia and Bosnia. And they were definitely aware of the genocide committed in Srebrenica 1995. Serbian Army and its paramilitary troops had to be stopped. The argument that NATO needed a base so it could get access to oil, or so it could get closer to Russia, is completely unfounded, considering all the facts that we've witnessed earlier on the Balkans.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for the additional info about Blunt, Gordon. And if there's one thing I've learned, no country is blameless or completely evil-- it's all a matter of degree, propaganda and perception.

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