SLATINA, Serbia (Reuters) - When the Russians tangled with the West over Kosovo nine years ago, they bit off more than they could chew and eventually backed down.
A far more confident Russia now is poised for a re-match on behalf of its Serb ally, after Kosovo Albanians declare the province independent of Serbia on Sunday.
Russia can’t stop independence but has blocked recognition by the United Nations, where it plans a legal challenge. This could help Serbia deprive the new state of the Serb-majority enclave in the hinterland of the northern city of Mitrovica.
It may also redress an affront dating back to June 11, 1999.
“We were surprised that day,” recalled Milazim Zogiani in his village overlooking Kosovo’s main airport near the capital, Pristina. “We didn’t expect the Russians. They came suddenly.”
Like all Kosovo Albanians, Zogiani was eagerly awaiting the arrival of 45,000 NATO troops as Serb forces began a withdrawal compelled by 78 days of allied bombing to end ethnic-cleansing ordered by the late Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.
Instead, he saw a Russian column sweep into the airport, completing a bold dash from Bosnia through Serbia to seize the runway with 200 soldiers before NATO could even get there, and be greeted as heroes by Serbs all along their way.
“The main thing was secrecy,” said a Russian soldier in the operation, now a senior paratroop officer. “What was a sensation for the world took weeks of thorough preparations for us.”
A senior Western diplomat who witnessed events said: “There was a very serious plan to partition Kosovo and they were going to do it by force majeure”, after NATO had rejected Moscow’s proposal to divide Kosovo into three slices, restricting NATO to the south.
A Russian-held airport was not in the Western script. NATO wondered if there had been a coup, if ailing President Boris Yeltsin was aware. The foreign ministry said it knew nothing.
But the defence ministry, despite many denials, was going ahead with a plan to bring in up to 10,000 troops, claim a Mitrovica sector, and deny NATO overall command.
“Kosovo would be effectively partitioned,” NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark wrote in his minute-by-minute record of the crisis. NATO’s war would have “achieved almost nothing”.
British troops arrived but the Russians refused to budge, triggering a blizzard of crisis phone calls as NATO generals and leaders disputed the high-risk responses under consideration.
The standoff was dismissed as an annoying sideshow to the big event of NATO deployment, but confidential accounts published later show it was anything but.
For three days, new allies Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria kept their airspace closed to Russian overflights. British general Mike Jackson refused to block the runway, telling Clark: “Sir, I’m not starting World War III for you.”
In the end, President Bill Clinton won Yeltsin’s assurance that Russia would abandon the gambit. They left the airport and fielded a modest contingent, as part of NATO’s peace force.
Zogiani recalled how later the Russians traded fuel for food. “Their food was bad. They treated us correctly”.
Getting to Kosovo first had been paramount for NATO because it “lacked the legal authority to deny the Russians their call for a sector” under U.N. Resolution 1244, Clark admitted.
Nine years later, 1244 is still in force and legal authority is again in dispute. Russia says an EU mission set to replace the UN in Kosovo is illegal. The EU will go ahead, but has failed to win endorsement from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Serbia already controls life in the Mitrovica zone and the West has few ideas on how keep it in Kosovo. Serbs there plan to set up a Serbian National Assembly on Friday, citing 1244 to dismiss independence and declare that they remain in Serbia.
NATO and the U.N. had never established authority in northern Kosovo, said the Western diplomat. “It has always been iffy.” The U.N. “has never been able to assert itself to the point where it could eradicate the parallel Serbian government networks running” in the region.
“In that sense the Serbs have never implemented 1244, by doggedly maintaining these parallel institutions in the north, keeping out and defying U.N. authority
“That’s why I find it so hypocritical that they now cling to 1244... when they’ve never implemented the thing themselves.”
Since 2007, the Russia of Vladimir Putin has mounted a stiff challenge to the West over Kosovo, where it was once treated as a spent power, and it has no obvious reason to give up now.
Serbia has already shown gratitude by letting Russia buy its oil monopoly. Nationalists say it should also invite Russia to set up military bases, to counter NATO in the Balkans.
Russia, said the Western diplomat, “will try every measure they can” as the ripples of Kosovo’s independence spread.
“For these people who believe that Russia is just bluffing, they really ought to go back and look at 1999.”
Editing by Giles Elgood