Not much to show: NATO, Kosovo and Operation Allied Force


There are various views on the Kosovo crisis and NATO’s role in it. What’s clear is that there is a mix of both positive and negative outcomes that are intertwined with one another. To properly evaluate them it is important to use a proper framework for ‘success’. For the purposes of this essay, the concept of success shall be broken down into three inter-relating elements: The achievements of goals set out by the NATO (Aims); the costs endured while attempting to achieve said goals (execution and cost) and any side effects or wider implications to NATO’s actions (implications). While the debate over legitimacy and sovereignty is important, this essay shall only touch upon it regarding NATO’s operational success or failure. Furthermore, peacekeeping operations, like KFOR, while important, shall not be focused on since this essay shall specifically deal with NATO’s efforts and degree of success at ending the war in Kosovo. 

Overall, on the surface, NATOs intervention into Kosovo can be seen as a success in a limited capacity, with the arguable accomplishment of its stated objectives. However, there are questions over its achievements; extensive criticisms of its execution and a severe failure to factor in wider implications for international politics (specifically regarding Russia). It’s this that severely limits the success of NATO’s intervention into Kosovo and casts doubt on whether operations like Operation Allied Force (OAF) can be counted a net success at all. 


While NATO failed in its stated goal in May 1998 of achieving a peaceful resolution to the crisis, its intervention in 1999 for the stated purpose of ‘preventing a human catastrophe’ it was, on the surface, a success. Specifically, this meant among other things: Ending military action/violence; withdrawal of forces (police, military and paramilitary) and an international military presence in Kosovo (NATO, 1999. Solana, 1999) which were all achieved, though not as immediately as initially thought (discussed later). There are various factors that led NATO to succeed and Milosevic to comply on the 3rd June. Some keep it strictly within NATO, between the threat of ground forces and the use of airpower (Keegan, 2004. Stigler, 2002/3). While some lean on certain factors more than others its clear Milosevic’s motivations were multi-dimensional (PBS: Frontline, 2019. Mccgwire, 2000). However, the weight of these factors is limited from two approaches: The limitations of NATO’s actions and the involvement of Russia. 

Firstly, once their aim of preventing ethnic cleansing and violent acts was not achieved through bombing (discussed later), as admitted by George Robertson (Mccgwire, 2000), the focus of the campaign changed to eliminating Serbian forces. Yet, the Serbian military were still in an operable state by the end of the 79-day campaign (Sloboda, 2000. Guardian, 2000) and once the initial round of targets by NATO had been exhausted, the Serbs still remained defiant. However, NATO had little to show for its trouble (casualties discussed later in ‘execution and cost’). Only when one takes into account infrastructure (roads, railways, telecommunications etc) does NATO begin to achieve significant results in damaging ‘military’ capabilities. Furthermore, as a result of extensive civic bombing and collateral damage (discussed later) Serbian opinion unified against NATO, not Milosevic. Opposition to him was discredited or alienated because of the bombing campaign (Mccgwire, 2000) and this represents a failure in the ‘downtown strategy’ pushed for by those like Michael Short in the NATO leadership during OAF. 

Secondly, is the involvement of the Russians who were the greatest ally of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and their influence helped curb Western efforts against Milosevic. Yet, by the beginning of June their increasing pressure and ‘exasperation’ at Milosevic is what was arguably the turning point in making Milosevic accept an agreement from NATO (Mccgwire, 2000). It is accurate to point out that the most influential factor on Milosevic was the redrafted proposal from NATO with the key additions being: 1) The international presence in Kosovo (military and civilian would be under the UN not NATO. 2) KFOR had no unrestricted passage throughout the FRY. 3) While Rambouillet would be taken into account, there was no express mention of the assurances Madeleine Albright had assured the KLA. However, these were drafted thanks to the ‘pivotal’ role of Chernomyrdin and his talks with Talbott and Ahtisaari (Select Committee on Defence, 2000. Gilligan, 2005) who helped modify the G8 statement into something with less clarity, more vagueness and something Milosevic could see himself gaining concessions out of (Ritchie, 2002). 

The heavy reliance on this major ally meant that once Russia could not guarantee its support, the threat of superior NATO forces and continuing aerial bombardment became much more threatening due to their increasing relative reality, which along with the amendments to NATO’s requirements provided Milosevic the necessary desire to change agree to pulling out. If NATO, or anyone else for that matter, had done nothing then Serbian efforts in Kosovo would have succeeded, or at least a bitter civil war would have ensued. Yet the cause of capitulation was not the bombing, but Russian diplomacy as admitted by Brigadier Michael Jackson (Sunday Telegraph, 1999). In summary, NATOs efforts did produce results and helped force a conclusion to the situation. However, it was far from the only deciding factor and so while some goals were achieved, many were not (at least fully) nor were they achieved alone which limits the success of NATO in its desired aims.  

Execution and cost 

For NATO, the execution of tackling the situation in Kosovo ran into several issues from initial negotiations and throughout the campaign exposing the weaknesses of the alliance and having to run everything by consensus complicated and strained relationships (Kaufman, 2002). Previous hesitation in the Balkans and division within the alliance over the appropriate use of force, particularly over the use of ground troops, helped Milosevic call NATO’s apparent ‘bluff’ and ultimately necessitate military action. While the alliance did endure (Mokhiber, 2019), it did not come out looking strong or unified, especially when countries like Greece or the US were against bombing or commitment of ground troops, respectively. This, from Milosevic’s perspective, was seen as division and therefore incentivised a strategy of ‘waiting it out’ (Kaufman, 2002). While OAF was initiated faster than Operation Deliberate Force and the failure of efforts such as Rambouillet lay with the bad faith of Milosevic and disorganisation of the Kosovans (Select Committee for Defence, 2019), the carrying out of a threat was delayed and exposed the lack of a single focus by NATO. This further reinforced Milosevic’s view of NATO and helped lead to confrontation by narrowing the options of the international community, rather than the threats and diplomacy of NATO being adequate enough. 

A crucial error in Kosovo had been the misreading of the opponent’s actions/reactions and the ‘erroneous’ assumptions that led to oversimplification of the situation (Kaufman, 2002:202. Mccgwire, 2000). For example, the Dayton model adopted by NATO failed to adapt to the new context as it didn’t acknowledge that Serbian sovereignty was in dispute; that Serbia was not a new satellite state or war weary and that complications between Serbian autonomy and the composition of international troops in Kosovo were different things. Generally, this led to a miscalculation of NATO’s aiming and contributed to a failure to resonate with Serbian leadership as showcased with Rambouillet, a document that was “an excuse to start bombing”; where “no ordinary Serb could have accepted” and “that should never have been accepted” (Kissinger, 2009). Once again helping to unnecessarily lead to war. 

These assumptions carried over into NATO’s actions making OAF not as successful as initially portrayed (Waller, Drezov and Gokay, 2000). For all the 3000 plus missions only 13/300 battle tanks were neutralised in Kosovo; 1955 of those mission’s pilots reported hitting their target; 26 tanks destroyed and 67 severely damaged out of roughly 600 in total; 153 APC’s hit out of 600 and 389 artillery and mortar pieces struck (Guardian, 2000). While NATO didn’t suffer any casualties and lost only one plane, OAF was not the punishment NATO had intended for Milosevic.  Furthermore, the collateral damage was very significant (Human Rights Watch, 2000). Schools, hospitals and TV broadcast stations were hit with 1500 civilian deaths and many several thousand more wounded (Mccgwire, 2000). While these were seen as accidents by the West, the Serbian civilians who suffered most of the bombing (Sloboda, 2000), felt it was deliberate due to perceptions of NATO’s advanced weaponry. According to some, NATO did make substantial efforts to minimize deaths (Independent International Commission on Kosovo, 2000) and bad weather prevented British ‘smart bombs’ from properly targeting. However, 75% of bombs dropped by the RAF alone were free fall – including 78,057 cluster bombs (Sloboda, 2000. Independent, 2000). Furthermore, the deliberate bombing of civilian locations with this large amount of imprecise weaponry reduces the capacity of NATO acting in a ‘civil’ manner and on behalf of supposed humanitarian concerns. In and of itself this collateral is bad enough since the aim of NATO intervention was to stop the loss of innocent life. Yet, it was possibly responsible for more civilian deaths than the entire war up until that point – defeating the object of a ‘noble’ intervention for humanitarian purposes – which defeats the point of NATO’s intervention, helping to make OAF counter-productive. 

Furthermore, as previously mentioned, this had further consequences because once the “Serbs were starting to feel the impact with the loss of water and electricity, they shifted the blame onto NATO, an organisation that appeared to them to be impervious to the loss of civilian life” (Kaufman, 2002:202). This alienation of the public helped reinforce Milosevic’s position by delegitimising NATO relative to him and failing in one of the main strategies of an air campaign – destabilising the leadership by affecting the public (Webb, 2008) achieving quite the opposite. Even the ability of NATO to safeguard populations from ethnic cleansing is to be questioned with rates of violence against civilians continuing at similar rates and only changing in their ethnic composition (Sloboda, 2000). In fact, it peaked two days into the bombing campaign and the lack of NATO action to punish ethnic Albanian factions for violently expelling 200,000 Kosovo Serbs (Dent, 1999) even when groups like the KLA had been described as terrorists by Albright and Cook (Malcolm, 1998).  

NATO’s actions to end the war, particularly OAF (both the ‘tank plinking’ nor the ‘downtown’ strategy) did not produce viable results nor was carried out efficiently or effectively. While NATO casualties were virtually non-existent, the collateral damage done overall showed a poor lack of execution by NATO throughout the campaign with a high collateral and civilians’ cost in exchange for minimal results that were eclipsed by other factors (discussed previously). Making NATO’s conduct inadequate to label as a ‘success’. 

Wider implications: 

The intervention in Kosovo also created wide ranging geo-political fallout, with five notable consequences. Firstly, there was the continuing of violence and refugees as bombing of Serbia had a correlation with the actions of Serbian troops in Kosovo. There was also a disruption to trade and communication to the region and other countries. Trade on the Danube was badly hurt with countries like Hungary, Romania, Russia and others being affected the most (The New York Times, 1999. Independent, 1999). This, too an extent, was a failure of NATO’s goal to provide security and stability to the neighbouring region. Also, by 10th June the KLA were in a favourable position with better resources and structure, resulting in them thinking of themselves as, not only the victors, but essentially a government in waiting (Mccgwire, 2000), further complicating the peace building process afterward. Furthermore, the image of NATO was brought into question. The optics of a collection of vastly superior states pummelling a country into submission while arguably skirting the UN and international law and during the process, had revealed the divisions within the alliance at a time of questioning its purpose and new strategic concepts did not bode well. 

Most crucially of these consequences however, was that relations with Russia were damaged and poisoned in the long term with Kosovo said to be a fundamental turning point in Russia-West relations (Tsygankov, 2001). OAF was ‘a shock to Russia’ (Primakov, 2008) as NATO had not consulted its supposed partner in the PJC and Contact group, proving Russia’s lack of value to the West in the eyes of many Russians. Over the course of the crisis NATO had humiliated Russia with its lack of inclusion; self-authorisation against an important ally and extending NATO’s ‘cloak’ to the black sea, all adding to Russian fears (Mccgwire, 2000:21). Even after Russian involvement in resolving the crisis, Russia had a relatively small part in peacekeeping and KFOR. This came at a time of severe Russian weakness and anxiety at NATO expansion and revealed the technological and financial dependency on the West (Dannreuther, 1999).  

This triggered intense debate within Russia (Tsgankov, 2001). Questions over Russia’s identity, purpose and place in the world came to the forefront in Russian policy discourse and domestic politics, which had been building up for a while (Tsygankov, 2013. Truscott, 1997). It was the final nail in the coffin for Westernisation in Russia as the electorate became alienated from discredited Westernizers. This helped to push Russian domestic politics and subsequently Russian foreign policy, decisively further toward pan-Slavic, nationalist and Eurasionist views. This has led to further confrontation down the line with links being made to the war in Georgia (Averre, 2009), for example. 

To summarize, the requirement of NATO action is legitimate, especially given the UN and EU’s poor track record (Dent, 1999). However, NATO also failed to recognise the threat its actions posed to Russia with Albright being reminded that there are “many Kosovo’s in Russia” (Talbott, 2000:301). NATO failed to act in a measurable way to abate these concerns. While Russia was brought into the contact group and into negotiations its position on the periphery of decisions already made by the West steered Russians to view the West as a hostile threat, rather than a partner, setting the relationship for future confrontation. 


Overall, NATO intervention into Kosovo was a limited success but with significant and wide-ranging drawbacks. Although the failure of negotiations was not the exclusive fault of NATO, it does bare a degree of the responsibility for leading the crisis to military intervention. This intervention, embodied by OAF “achieved the limited objective of the withdrawal of Serb forces, there is hardly any other outcome” (Sloboda, 2000:115). Simultaneously, the successes of the campaign are shared with the factor of Russian efforts at helping to resolving the crisis while also having to accommodate at what cost such objectives were achieved. The collateral damage speaks for itself and the possibility of causing more civilian deaths than the conflict had produced up until that point is not only ironic, but represents a severe lack of effective execution by NATO and affects determining its overall level of success in Kosovo. 

Ultimately, Serbian withdrawal and a task force in Kosovo were achieved, but little else. Alongside these limited successes were significant costs to civilians; a damaging of NATO’s reputation and worse relations with Russia (both short and long term). Not every failure was the fault of NATO, but neither was every success the sole product of NATO’s efforts. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo remains extremely mixed, with limited successes throughout negotiation and OAF. However, there were key failures, particularly in OAF and especially in the execution and wider implications of NATO’s involvement which makes NATOs actions in regards to Kosovo a very narrow success – at best. 


Abrams, F. (2000). “Britain ‘broke law with Kosovo cluster bombs’”. Independent. Available at: (Last updated: 8th August 2000). 

Andrews, E. (1999). “Crisis in the Balkans: The Danube; NATO bombing of bridges in Yugoslavia disrupts trade on Europe-Asia link”. The New York Times. Available at: (Last updated 8thApril 1999). 

Averre, D. (2009). “From Prisitina to Tskhinvali: The legacy of Operation Allied Force in Russia’s relations with the West”. International Affairs. Vol 85 (3). pp: 575-591.  

Cleaver, H. (1999). “Dateline: Vienna, Austria: Danube trade is the latest casualty of war”. Independent. Available at: (Last updated 28th April 1999). 

Dannreuther, R. (1999). “Escaping the NATO enlargement trap in NATO-Russian relations”. Survival. Vol 41 (4). pp 145-164. 

Dent, M. (1999). “Lessons from Kosovo”, In M. Waller, K. Drezov and B. Gokay’s (eds), Kosovo: The politics of delusion (2001). London: Frank Cass

Gilligan, A. (2005). “Russia, not bomb, brought end to war in Kosovo, says Jackson”. Sunday Telegraph August 1999. Available at:

Nortan-Taylor, R. (2000). “How the Serb army escaped NATO”. Guardian. Available at:

Human Rights Watch. (2000). “Civilian deaths in NATO air campaign”. Available at:

Independent International Commission on Kosovo. (2000). “The Kosovo report: Conflict, International response, lessons learned”. New York: Oxford University Press

Kaufman, J. (2002). “NATO and the former Yugoslavia: Crisis, conflict and the Atlantic alliance”. London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. 

Keegan, J. (1999). “Please, Mr Blair, never take such a risk again”. Sunday Telegraph. Retrieved from Air Force Magazine. Available at:

Kissinger, H. Retrieved from: Ian Bancroft (2009). “Serbia’s anniversary is a timely reminder”. Guardian. Available at: (Last updated Tuesday 24th March 2009). 

Malcolm, N. (1998). “Kosovo: A short history”. London: Papermac

Mccgwire, M. (2000). “Why did we bomb Belgrade?”. International Affairs. Vol 76 (1). pp 1-23.  

Mokhiber, J. (2019). “Why did Milosevic give up?”. PBS: Frontline. Available at: (Last accessed 16th December 2019). 

NATO. (1999). “NATO’s role in Kosovo”. Available at: (Last updated 15th July 1999). 

Primakov, Y. (2008). Retrieved from: Derek Averre. (2009). “From Pristina to Tskhinvali: The legacy of Operation Allied Force in Russia’s relations with the West”. International Affairs. Vol: 85 (3). Pp: 575-591.  

Ritchie, S. (2002). “Britain and NATO strategy during the Kosovo conflict” in S. Cox and P. Gray’s (eds), Air power history: Turning points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo. London: Frank Cass. 

Select Committee for Defence. (2000). “Examination of witnesses (Questions 720-739)”. Parliament. Available at: (Last accessed 23rd December 2019). 

Select Committee for Defence. (2019). “Select Committee on Defence fourteenth report: The background to military intervention”. Parliament. Available at: (Last accessed 19th December 2019). 

Sloboda, J. (2000). “So much expended for so little good” in M. Waller, K. Drezov and B. Gokay’s (eds), Kosovo: The politics of delusion. (2001). London: Frank Cass. 

Solana, J. (1999). “Press release by Secretary general of NATO”. NATO. Available at: (Last accessed 19th December 2019). 

Stigler, A. (2002-3). “A clear victory for airpower: NATO’s empty threat to invade Kosovo”. International Security. Vol 27 (3). pp 124-157.  

Talbott, S. (2000). “The Russia hand”. New York: Random House

Trsucott, P. (1997). “Russia first: Breaking with the West”. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers

Tsygankov, A. (2001). “The final triumph of Pax Americana? Western intervention in Yugoslavia and Russia’s debate on the Post-Cold War order”. Science Direct. Vol 34 (2). pp 133-156.  

Tsygankov, A. (2013). “Russia’s foreign policy: Change and continuity in national identity”. Third edition. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc

Waller, M; Drezov, K and Gokay, B. (eds). (2001). “Kosovo: The politics of delusion”. London: Frank Cass

Webb, K. (2008). “Strategic bombing and Kosovo: Evidence from the Boer War”. Defense and Security Analysis. Vol 24 (3). pp 303-315. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: