NATO’s Farcical Balkans Mission
The defensive alliance continues to act more like the police of Eastern Europe.
The United States and its European allies love to portray NATO’s military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s as solid successes. In both cases, NATO partisans stress, the West’s efforts brought bloody conflicts and rampant human rights abuses to an end and put the countries on the road to stability and democracy.
This is a greatly oversimplified, if not grotesquely distorted, version of the real history. Both political entities are still dysfunctional international wards decades after the original military interventions. NATO troops continue to police two increasingly fragile political and security environments. Recent events in both Bosnia and Kosovo highlight the volatile settings.
Such thankless and ultimately pointless missions are a far cry from NATO’s original purpose—to shield a weak, war-ravaged democratic Europe from possible intimidation or even conquest by the Soviet Union. It is a debatable matter whether Washington’s push for the creation of a U.S.-dominated transatlantic alliance to confront Moscow was either necessary or wise. Nevertheless, NATO at least had a credible, substantive geostrategic purpose.
Instead of proclaiming “mission accomplished” when the USSR dissolved in December 1991, however, Western leaders began casting about to find alternative missions for the now suddenly obsolete alliance. At times, it appeared to be a case of grasping at straws. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Hormats even suggested that NATO should focus on dealing with such matters as student exchanges and environmental initiatives—as though a powerful military alliance was needed or appropriate for such purposes.
It did not take U.S. and European leaders long, though, to come up with a mission that at least had a military dimension. The slow-motion unraveling of Yugoslavia led to turmoil in Bosnia, one of the emerging successor states, and later in Serbia’s secession-minded province of Kosovo. NATO seized the opportunity to intervene with air strikes against Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and against Serbia itself in 1999. In both cases, the Alliance followed up its military intervention with peacekeeping missions.
The political settlements that the West imposed, however, have never been secure, and they are coming under growing challenges. The political arrangement that Washington and its allies installed in Bosnia with the Dayton Accords in 1995 created two semi-autonomous entities—one overwhelmingly Muslim, the other (the Republika Srpska) overwhelmingly Serb—within a single state. Both the leaders and the populations of the Republika Srpska, have been disgruntled with the arrangement from the outset, and Bosnian Serb leaders repeatedly threaten to declare full independence.
The latest episode began in April 2023, producing yet another spike in political tensions. NATO responded on May 30 by sending two B-1 bombers over Bosnia in an unsubtle attempt to intimidate Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik. Not only did the planes pass directly over Sarajevo and other major cities, they participated in a joint military exercise with U.S. Special Forces near the northeast. The flights were a demonstration of “a rock-solid commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Bosnia, U.S. Ambassador Michael Murphy stated.
Meanwhile, tensions also are rising between NATO and its longtime client, Kosovo. When the Western powers wrenched Kosovo away from Serbia in 1999 and subsequently midwifed its declaration of independence in 2008, they created a new source of tension. The majority Serb population in Kosovo’s northern region wanted to rejoin Serbia instead of being a despised, powerless ethnic minority in an independent Kosovo that was now 90 percent Albanian. Western governments have stubbornly refused to consider, much less support, that option. Instead they have steadfastly backed the national government in Pristina.
Discontent among the Serb minority in the north has not abated, however. Indeed, anger at Pristina’s attempts to establish suffocating controls over the region has led to the eruption of violence on several occasions—especially over the past two years. The latest episode occurred on May 29, when NATO peacekeepers were caught in a melee between Serb demonstrators and Kosovo security forces, and more than two dozen peacekeepers were injured. NATO responded with an announcement that it would deploy another 700 troops to Kosovo and put another battalion on high alert for possible deployment.
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For once, the United States and its allies directed most of their wrath at Kosovo rather than the Serb minority. The U.S. ambassador to Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, confirmed that Washington would even apply sanctions. Hovenier told a press conference that the first sanction would be the cancellation of Kosovo’s participation in the forthcoming U.S.-led Defender Europe 2023 military exercise. He added that the United States also will “cease all efforts to assist Kosovo in gaining recognition from states that have not recognized Kosovo [roughly half of the members of the United Nations] and in the process of integration into international organizations.”
We have reached the point of geopolitical farce when B-1 bombers, an expensive aircraft designed primarily to carry a payload of nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union, is now being used in a small, strategically and economically irrelevant country to overawe an ethnic group that simply wants its own state instead of remaining in an unworkable, forced union with rival ethnic groups. Yet that is the situation now in Bosnia.
It is equally farcical when NATO troops are expected to police a de facto boundary between a frustrated ethnic minority and the national government in another country that is—or at least should be—strategically and economically irrelevant to the United States and even to the European powers. NATO’s seemingly endless, petty peacekeeping missions in the Balkans would be humorous if they weren’t so sad and pathetic. Whatever one thinks of NATO’s original purpose during the Cold War, it is doubtful that the Alliance’s founders ever visualized this development.