The End Game For Milosevic

The humanitarian catastrophe may give the impression that the NATO air strikes are failing. But the campaign is already having an impact, and can ultimately succeed.

The End Game For Milosevic

The humanitarian catastrophe may give the impression that the NATO air strikes are failing. But the campaign is already having an impact, and can ultimately succeed.

Real-time images of refugees streaming out of Kosovo into neighbouring Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania have helped create the impression in most Western media that round one of NATO's war with Slobodan Milosevic went to the Yugoslav President. This is not the case.


In reality, NATO's air campaign has already had a major impact on the ground and, as long as Western resolve remains firm, it will eventually prove successful.


Milosevic's star has appeared to be in the ascendant since the NATO campaign got under way. The domestic opposition has been silenced and his popularity has surged as Serbs have rallied behind him in defence of their homeland. He also succeeded in cleansing large tracts of Kosovo of its ethnic-Albanian population.


The perception in Western media that Milosevic got the best of the early encounters probably gave him an added incentive to remain defiant, namely the possibility that divisions within NATO would force the alliance to call off the offensive.


Western leaders have certainly admitted that they failed to anticipate the potential scale of the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding. As a result, they were slow to react to the tragedy.


But one of the factors which persuaded NATO to begin its campaign was an awareness of what Milosevic was planning on the ground. And halting the bombing will not help the expelled Albanians to return to their homes.


Most importantly, the tide of battle has already turned. NATO's score card appears increasingly impressive, and the longer-term consequences for Milosevic may yet prove devastating.


In the early days of its bombing campaign, NATO focused its firepower on Yugoslavia's air defences. This left Milosevic free to continue his ethnic cleansing campaign and expel many thousands of Albanians from Kosovo. But as soon as NATO refocused its offensive to go after Serbian forces on the ground, it succeeded in reducing the pace and scale of the ethnic cleansing. And as the weather improved, it has forced the Yugoslav Army on to the defensive. Meantime, the alliance has yet to take a single casualty.


There are, of course, limits to what can be achieved by air power alone. That said, the bombing is paving the way for deployment of ground forces, which has always been the ultimate aim of the campaign. Moreover, in the wake of the harrowing images of refugees, Western public opinion appears almost eager to accept deeper involvement in Kosovo, including possibly even deployment of ground troops into a hostile environment.


The signs that Milosevic is rattled are everywhere, not least in Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation. Milo Djukanovic, the reformist Montenegrin president, has for some time been the best hope for democratic change coming from within Yugoslavia and also therefore the greatest threat to Milosevic.


In order to head off unrest in Montenegro, Milosevic intervened at the beginning of the month to replace the senior Yugoslav officer there, Gen. Radoslav Martinovic, with Gen. Milorad Obradovic. He has also brought the Yugoslav airforce into action in Montenegro in the past couple of days in an effort to provoke NATO attacks and turn that republic against the West. NATO had stopped bombing Montenegro after the first five days of its campaign when the alliance felt that it had done sufficient damage to the air defences to be able to over-fly in safety, en route for Serbia.


Milosevic's latest offer of an Easter cease-fire is again a sign of weakness--as were both his effort to communicate with NATO via Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and his attempt to give the impression that he was entering into dialogue with Ibrahim Rugova, the now marginalised Kosovo Albanian leader, who is also effectively his political prisoner. The discussions with Cypriot leader Spyros Kyprianou over the potential release of the seized American troops may be a similar indication.


In order to capitalise on Milosevic's discomfort, it is imperative to continue both to destroy the instruments of his power and to reduce yet further his room for manoeuvre. On the surface, the situation appears grave, and it may yet take some months to clarify. But it is clear that the end-game has begun for Milosevic.


James Gow is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington and author of Triumph of the Lack of Will: International Diplomacy and the Yugoslav War (Hurst & Co, 1997) and Legitimacy and the Military: The Yugoslav Crisis (Frances Pinter, 1992).


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