The Serbian Interior Ministry in Belgrade is set ablaze by a NATO cruise missile attack in 1999. Photo: Facebook

In international relations, might makes right. Nowhere was that more obvious than during the war over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO launched air campaign against Serbia – at the time part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

So is Russian President Vladimir Putin implementing the same strategy against Ukraine that the US-led alliance used against the Serbs in the 1990s?

NATO’s first offensive large-scale military operation in history, known as Operation Allied Force, lasted for 78 days. As a result, at least 2,500 people died and 12,500 were injured, and the Serbian forces withdrew from its southern province of Kosovo, following the Kumanovo Agreement, signed in North Macedonia’s city of Kumanovo in June 1999.

Upon withdrawal of the Serbian Army, NATO troops entered the coal-rich territory, and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo was established. Nine years later, on February 17, 2008, authorities in Pristina unilaterally declared independence, and to this day 117 countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state.

In reality, Kosovo is independent from Serbia but is heavily dependent on the West, particularly the United States.

In 2016, authorities in Pristina were granted the rights to search for coal over one-third of its territory to a company linked to retired US General Wesley Clark, who served the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO during the bombing campaign against Serbia.

Prior to the war, the West developed a “moral argument” against the Serbs, claiming that NATO had to intervene in order to prevent “ethnic cleansing” in the region.

Now, Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to be using the very same argument against Ukraine, accusing Kiev of committing “genocide” against people living in the coal-rich Donbass region.

Following the Western decision to recognize Kosovo, Putin made the same move twice – first in 2008 when Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russo-Georgian war, and a second time this month when the Kremlin recognized the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

Ukrainian troops conduct a drill with tanks while military activity continues in the Donbas region on April 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Armed Forces of Ukraine / Anadolu Agency

By doing so, both the West and Russia have clearly demonstrated that international law is a dead letter, merely an instrument that a war victor uses against a defeated party.

The West, for its part, is now leading a strong media campaign against Moscow and is actively demonizing Russia, in a similar way that the Serbs were demonized during the 1990s. Indeed, propaganda is an active part of each conflict, and the Russians seem to have already lost the media war.

Putin is not even attempting to win the hearts of minds of the people in Ukraine. Even before the Maidan events in 2014, Russia’s soft power in the Eastern European nation was weak.

The military campaign against Kiev will undoubtedly increase the animosity of Ukrainians towards Russians, just like NATO actions against Serbia galvanized a strong anti-Western sentiment in the Balkan nation.

At the time, many Serbs were naively expecting Russia’s help against the US-led alliance, but it never came. Instead, it was Victor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s special envoy, that pressured then-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to sign a de facto capitulation.

NATO has not deployed its troops to fight in Ukraine, but several members of the alliance continue to supply the former Soviet republic with tons of weapons. In 1999, Serbia was on its own against the most powerful military group in human history.

Moreover, a year after the war, Vladimir Putin, who then served as Russia’s prime minister, and former US president Bill Clinton actively worked on a regime change in Belgrade. It was Putin and his envoy Sergey Ivanov that played a significant role in the overthrow of the Serbian leader.

In Ukraine, it is extremely unlikely that any NATO leaders will side with Putin and help him overthrow leader Volodymyr Zelensky. Russia is on its own in this war.

Even its nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization – Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – are not involved in the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) is providing a lifeline for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev

Belarus is the only exception, given that President Alexander Lukashenko allowed the Russian army to use Belarusian territory for an invasion of Ukraine. Putin might be trying to implement a strategy similar to the one NATO used against Serbia, but his relatively weak position in the international arena will have a significant impact on the outcome of his Ukraine invasion.

There are some crucial differences between what happened in 1999 and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict of 2022. For one, the war in Ukraine already seems to be more brutal. At this point, it is hard to determine the number of deaths in Ukraine, but if the war lasts for 11 weeks, which was the case in Yugoslavia, the death toll will almost certainly be much higher than in that conflict.

More importantly, NATO’s losses in Serbia were minimal compared to the ones Russia is likely to or already has suffered in Ukraine. Moscow is not publicly disclosing casualty figures. At the same time, Yugoslav Armed Forces deaths were much smaller than the losses that the Ukrainian Army likely suffered in the very first days of the war.

In 1999, NATO used its proxies – ethnic Albanian guerrillas – against Serbian troops while Russian ground troops had to directly intervene to help the Kremlin’s proxies in the Donbass.

Finally, Moscow is attempting to achieve the same result in Ukraine that the United States achieved in Serbia in 1999 and 2000 – to establish de facto control over the country and force it to recognize that its energy-rich territories are now independent entities. Indeed, the energy aspect of both conflicts should not be ignored. 

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”