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