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25 Years Ago: NATO’s War of Aggression Against Yugoslavia

Nobody, criticizing the Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine today, should forget, NATO waged the first war of aggression in Europe after the Second World War. On March 24, 1999, NATO forces began bombing Yugoslavia without an UN mandate. It was the alliance’s first combat mission in Europe and the first war deployment of the German armed forces since 1945.

NATO used the nationalist conflicts in the separation of the various states and regions of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as a pretext. With the active participation of the FRG government, the secession of Slovenia and Croatia was pursued, later Bosnia-Herzegovina and other republics. The multi-ethnic constitution of the respective regions was now nationalistically superimposed on violent areas of conflict. The Serbian province of Kosovo became a particular area of conflict, where Western states supported the military forces of the Albanian UÇK against Serbia’s state authority, which, among other things, carried out terrorist attacks on Serbian police stations. In the summer of 1998, there was a civil war in Kosovo, for which the OSCE attempted to broker a ceasefire. US diplomat Richard Holbrooke traveled to the country as a representative of the OSCE to monitor compliance with the ceasefire. At the same time, the USA was planning military intervention against Yugoslavia, while the Europeans once again invited representatives of the Yugoslav central government and the Albanian UÇK to Paris for negotiations in February 1999. Instead of talks, the Albanian negotiator Hashim Thaci, later “President of the Republic of Kosovo”, blocked any agreement.

Holbrooke then demanded that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević ultimately agree to Kosovo’s independence. When he refused, NATO decided to go to war. Without seeking an UN mandate or discussing the case in the Security Council, NATO began massive air strikes on March 24, 1999. To justify this war, the German government claimed at the time that a “Serbian expulsion plan” had to be stopped. The then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (“The Greens”) even announced that the aim was to prevent “a new Auschwitz”. Veterans of the anti-fascist struggle and those persecuted by the Nazi regime therefore accused him of a “new Auschwitz lie”.

The war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia lasted 75 days. In particular, there were massive air raids that were supposed to hit “exclusively military targets”. The ruins of the state television station in the middle of Belgrade, which can still be seen today, show very clearly that the aim was to destroy the state infrastructure. As a precaution, NATO representative Jamie Shea explained that “collateral damage” was also the responsibility of President Milošević, as he had resisted NATO’s insistence.

This damage was extensive. In early April, bombs fell on the town of Aleksinac, killing twelve civilians and destroying one hundred and fifty homes. In mid-April, 73 people died in western Kosovo when NATO aircraft bombed a refugee train. The attack on the bridge near Varvarin on May 30, 1999 is well known. Many years later, relatives of the civilians killed tried to claim damages in a civil suit against the FRG, which was rejected by the German courts.

NATO’s military superiority was unable to defeat the country militarily for over two months. The fact that the Yugoslavian air defense succeeded in shooting down a “stealth bomber”, NATO’s most modern war machine at the time, was proof of the situation. British Prime Minister Tony Blair even considered deploying ground troops. However, at the beginning of June 1999, the Yugoslav government decided to give in to NATO blackmail in order to protect its own population. The Yugoslav army and Serbian police withdrew from Kosovo; NATO units marched into the Serbian province and divided it into five occupation zones. This also put an end to the bombing.

The gruesome result: around fifteen thousand people fell victim to NATO air strikes between March 24 and June 12, 1999.
The evidence of NATO’s war crimes is still visible in Belgrade today. They clearly show that the civilian population is the victim of such armed conflicts. We would also like to remind you that the conflict has still not been resolved. The status of the province of Kosovo under international law has not been internationally recognized, nor have the rights of the Serbian population been secured.

For FIR, this results in the historical realization that the right to self-determination of people in a region cannot be enforced by military force, but only through negotiations and treaties under the responsibility of the United Nations.