Yesterday some Italian and Hungarian soldiers who are part of a NATO contingent called KFOR were injured during a protest in Zvecan, Kosovo. The KFOR operation has been active in Kosovo since 12 June 1999, it began after the conclusion of NATO military action against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by Slobodan Milošević.
NATO is a military alliance founded in 1949, a few years after the end of the Second World War, to counter the hegemony of the Soviet Union in Europe. During the Cold War, NATO became the mirror force opposing the Warsaw Pact, the alliance founded in 1955 and led by the Soviet Union. Over time, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has grown and expanded towards the east, including the former Soviet Baltic countries and most of the countries of Eastern Europe. During the Cold War, however, it never conducted military operations. The first intervention was in 1994, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, and then in 1999 to bomb the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the war in Kosovo.
Kosovo is located between Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia and is a little larger than Abruzzo. It is the youngest country in Europe and the six stars that can be seen on its flag represent the six ethnic groups that inhabit it: the Albanians, who are more than 90 percent of the population, and then the Serbs, the Turks, the Gorani , Roma and Bosnian Muslims. In 1999 NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo was justified by the need to put an end to a deliberate campaign of oppression, ethnic cleansing and violence carried out by the Serbs against the population of Albanian origin.
In 1990, under pressure from the Serbian government led by Slobodan Milošević, the autonomy that Kosovo had been recognized by Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was abrogated. Milošević also launched a strong campaign of Serbianization of Kosovar institutions, which caused frequent clashes between the Serbian army and pro-independence militias and para-military groups. In the late 1990s these clashes turned into a conflict.
Starting in 1996, the military movement of Albanian separatists UçK (Ushtria çlirimtare and Kosoves) began a series of guerrilla actions, even coming to control entire areas of Kosovar territory. On February 28, 1998, the KLA killed some Serbian police officers causing the retaliation of the Milošević police, who launched an offensive with heavy vehicles against numerous villages of the Drenica, in the center of the country, destroying them and killing men, women and children indiscriminately . The images of the Drenica massacre were broadcast by the media around the world and had a huge impact on public opinion, which began to fear that Kosovo was now at the center of an ethnic cleansing by the Serbs.
In the meantime, the diplomatic attempts in favor of the sovereignty of Kosovo carried out by President Ibrahim Rugova were unsuccessful, as were those initiated by international diplomacy at the Rambouillet Conference in France: the Serbs refused the final agreement which provided, in fact , the deployment on their territory of a peace-keeping force under NATO command.
After the failure of diplomatic channels, on March 23, 1999, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana thus began NATO military operations against Serbia, initially without a specific mandate from the UN Security Council. The humanitarian reasons for the intervention were repeatedly reaffirmed both by NATO and by the governments of the member states. The then prime minister of Italy, Massimo D’Alema, in a speech to the Chamber of Deputies and then in a press release dated March 28, said that it was time for responsibility: «My judgment is that the military intervention necessary and inevitable,” he said. And he therefore gave the authorization for the use of Italian airspace for NATO missions by making military aircraft and 19 bases available for the conflict, which were used to take off the planes, for logistics, for radar coverage or for weather information.
The role of NATO in an external conflict on the alliance’s borders was debated then and later: those who considered it essential to defend the Kosovar population and to dismiss Milošević were opposed by those who judged it unnecessary, unilateral and responsible for an escalation in violence, as well as causing extensive civilian losses in the Serbian population. The role of the so-called “CNN factor”, i.e. the weight that the media had in justifying and making the military intervention legitimate, was also much discussed. Among other things, with the intervention in Kosovo, NATO founded its new strategy, ie the transformation of the alliance from a defensive one to an organization promoting stability and peace, even in territories outside those of the members of the organisation.
NATO’s Allied Force operation began on the evening of March 24: 80 aircraft belonging to Canada, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, the United States, Italy, and then the US and British warships stationed in the Adriatic bombings and missile launches against Serbia began. In the first phase, Serbian radars and air defense installations north of Pristina and around Belgrade were attacked. The second phase of the conflict began on March 27 and was aimed at the destruction of the Serbian armed forces. On April 23, the NATO allies meeting in Washington decided to intensify the attacks. Thus began the third and final phase of the war.
The bombings were also directed towards non-military targets such as power plants, bridges, aqueducts, fuel depots, radios and televisions, provoking an ever-growing aversion towards the regime in the Serbian population. The “collateral damage” of this third phase was numerous: on 8 May, due to an error in identifying the target, for example the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was hit. There were deaths, injuries, and strong controversy over the inadequacy of the US intelligence system. In all of this, Serbia was continuing to carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing causing an influx of refugees and displaced persons towards the borders of Albania and Macedonia which was assuming the dimensions of an exodus.
By the end of May, there were nearly eight hundred air attacks. Faced with the increase in bombing and the willingness offered by all NATO member countries to grant new bases to the US army, Milosevic accepted surrender. On June 9, an agreement was signed with the United Nations. NATO Secretary Solana ordered the suspension of attacks and the official conclusion of the Allied Force operation.
The agreements provided for the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, the beginning of a UN mission for the interim administration of the country with the task of restoring order and peace, and the entry in support of the mission of a military peacekeeping force led by NATO, the Kosovo Force (KFOR).
KFOR’s initial contingent consisted of six infantry brigades, two of which were British-led, and one each from the United States, France, Germany and Italy. The country was divided into five different zones, each entrusted to a state. In parallel with the establishment of KFOR, Kosovo in 1999 came under the international protectorate of the United Nations.
KFOR’s first task was to establish itself as the only legitimate military force, avoid clashes and threats against Kosovo by Serbian and Yugoslav forces, restore and maintain public security and demilitarize the KLA: the NATO military, therefore, patrolled and they demined the territory, seized weapons, and facilitated the return of people who had taken refuge in neighboring countries, mostly in Albania, and who numbered about a million. After that, each in their own area of competence, they began to rebuild roads, to reactivate schools and clinics, to restore the railway line, to secure monuments of historical and cultural interest.
Over time, the NATO forces present in Kosovo have been reorganized, new groups have been set up and new operational realities have been launched. In the period of maximum participation, the number of KFOR troops reached 50 thousand soldiers from 39 countries, while today in Kosovo there are 27 countries with about 3,800 soldiers.
After being administered for nearly a decade by an international protectorate of the United Nations, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. In the following months, the NATO countries decided to continue the mission, in agreement with the authorities of the new state of Kosovo and in collaboration with the United Nations. However, Kosovo’s independence is not recognized by Serbian institutions and there continue to be tensions and episodes of violence between the two countries, such as the protests in which NATO soldiers were injured. The areas most at risk are those in the north, with a Serbian and non-Albanian majority.
Today, according to the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael which deals with international relations, Serbian citizens rely above all on the presence of NATO in Kosovo: in fact, they see KFOR as the main guarantor of their protection, especially after the parliament of 2018 Kosovo passed a law giving a military mandate to the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF): so far they were lightly armed and had carried out civil defense operations.