We know that the Kosovan Albanians, and not a few Serbian civilians, have already paid a terrible price for the limited war between NATO and Yugoslavia. Some see this as a good reason for continuing the bombing or even escalating to a ground assault. Yet reports from Belgrade and Moscow make it clear that a deal is, and has been, available which would secure the withdrawal of the great bulk of Serb forces from Kosovo and their replacement by an international security force. Even prior to the air attacks the Yugoslav government was willing to sign up to such a package but refused to do so when presented at the last moment with a ‘military annexe’ to the proposed Agreement which stipulated that the international security force would be NATO-led, that it would have the right of inspection throughout the Yugoslav republic and that its members would be exempt from responsibility for their actions before local courts.

Of course the willingness of Milosevic to strike a deal does not come from the goodness of his heart but because of his fear of NATO striking power and because of his craving for international respectability, precisely the motives which brought him to endorse the agreement at Dayton in 1995. It might be thought that the fear element in the Serbian leader’s motivation to agree a settlement itself justifies the air assault so far. But this would only be the case if the terms of the settlement now were very much better than those already available at Rambouillet in February and this is not the case. The composition of the security force and the ‘military annex’ were the stumbling block in February and similar factors doomed the attempted Russian mediation in early May. In public both sides overstate their position a bit but the composition of the security force is the sticking point, with the West insisting that NATO supplies the ‘core’ of the force and Belgrade rejecting this, sure in the knowledge that all sectors of Russian opinion will support them in this.

Some Kosovans and their supporters have argued all along that what they want is a complete Serb withdrawal, immediate return of refugees and full self-determination for the people of Kosovo. And they have hoped for the overthrow of Milosevic rather than yet another deal which would leave him in place. After what has happened these are all perfectly understandable reactions but that does not mean they should be endorsed. In fact NATO has not allowed the Kosovans to dictate its strategy. At no point has NATO asked Belgrade to renounce all claim to Kosovo. The obstacle to agreement has always been the character of the international force to be introduced as Yugoslav security forces withdraw.

NATO has all along been willing to allow a token Yugoslav presence at some border points as a sop to the notion that, in some loose way, Kosovo is still, like Montenegro, part of Yugoslavia. The justification offered for this is that the presence of the security force would allow refugees to return and would lay the basis for some new political structure. Of course if the security force were NATO-led the corollary would be that Kosovo becomes a Bosnia-style NATO-protectorate. For different reasons, and to differing degrees, this would be unwelcome to both Serbians and Kosovans, though that is not the only reason to oppose such a scenario.

The alternative to a NATO-led security force would be one drawn broadly from the UN and OSCE countries and including substantial Russian participation. If the European powers were prepared to pay the greater part of the cost of such a force, which is only fair considering their large contribution to the escalation of the Yugoslav wars, there is every reason to suppose that such a broader security force would do just as a good a job as a NATO-led force. So long as their wages are paid armies are structured to obey orders; this is as true for the Russian, Irish and Finnish armies as it is for NATO forces. And because it would not provoke the Russians, it would contribute to regional security rather than undermining it. From the Kosovan perspective much would depend on whether there was an economic package for returning refugees as well as security guarantees.

The horrendous air war was unleashed, and is being continued, for one reason, and one reason only; that nothing less than a ‘NATO-led’ solution and NATO-protectorate status for Kosovo is acceptable to those running the war. In pursuit of this policy some are even willing to contemplate the huge risks of a ground war. But even the more cautious remain wedded to a NATO-centric strategy that does not produce results for the Kosovans and is pregnant with future danger. In other words the war has a strategic dimension which has been allowed to blight every prospect of settlement and to poison East-West relations – and for which the peoples of the region are paying an ever-higher price.

When former President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Kings College, Cambridge, in March he expressed astonishment that the West was prepared to follow up the expansion of NATO by making a bonfire of all the international accords and organisations that had been put in place to safeguard peace and human rights. Those who went to war treated the Helsinki agreements as a scrap of paper and shunted aside the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They denied Russia a real say in the crisis, notwithstanding the obvious contribution which the Russian government could make to a settlement. Those who heard Gorbachev, and had the opportunity to speak with him, could not fail to be impressed by his alarm. Gorbachev’s views have weight not only because of his experience, but because of his good relations with Primakov, the popular ex-premier and a possible successor to Yeltsin. They chime in with those of most sections of Russian opinion which has achieved a rare unity on this issue.

The Russian government itself has repeatedly warned that a NATO land invasion would provoke a new cold war, with unending instability in a wide arc of countries and the final burial of both nuclear and conventional disarmament. If NATO attempted to occupy most or all of former Yugoslavia with the help of its new Eastern European members the military encirclement of Russia would be complete. The already tense situation in the Caucasus and Ukraine, where there are the ingredients for a civil war, or for preemptive coups, between pro and anti-Western forces, would deteriorate further.

NATO commanders know the huge difficulties of landing a significant force in Kosovo and therefore would be strongly tempted to move against Belgrade directly from their bases in Bosnia and Hungary with the help of allied local forces. However it was done, a military plunge into Serbia, could detonate the political minefields in Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro. If Hungary, Rumania or Croatia are given any role then territories such as the Voyvodina and Moldavia could be dragged in. The implications for Russia and the Ukraine, and their respective borderlands, are a nightmare.

So, have the NATO leaders forgotten about Russia’s possession of 3,500 intercontinental ballistic missiles, with their nuclear warheads? Does the fragility of the political order in Russia need to be pointed out to them? Did it require the Chinese reaction to the bombing of their Belgrade embassy to notice that Russia, the military giant, and China, the rising economic power, are exploring economic and military cooperation?

For whatever reason most Western commentators rarely refer to such matters preferring to maintain the comfortable illusion of an end to the Cold War. But it would be absurd to suppose that Pentagon or State Department strategists do not register their over-riding importance. US Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright, with encouragement from veteran cold warriors like Senator Jesse Helms, has certainly managed to focus on such issues even if the US President and Congress have had other matters on their mind. When justifying the size of the US military budget complicated formulas are put forward about the need to confront two major regional crises at the same time; thinly-veiled hints then make it clear that the military establishment is designed to be able to confront and contain Russia and China. With Kosovo, the hawkish strategy of containment moved from diplomacy and budget planning to fait accompli and unilateral military initiatives. Whether or not he fully understood what was afoot, Britain’s callow and histrionic premier furnished needed support to the war party.

It was at US insistence that Russia was cut out of the process that led to the war, and excluded from its implementation. The NATO political directorate, won to the view that the best way to deal with the Russian threat was by encircling that country with military bases, client states and NATO protectorates, preferred this further expansion of NATO to Russian good offices in its tussle with Milosevic. This crassly provocative posture evidently had its opponents in NATO counsels but they tamely followed where the US and Britain led, sending out pathetic little signals of concern as the military juggernaut headed for the abyss.

The rigorous exclusion of Russia from any other than a messenger boy role is especially notable since Javier Solana, the NATO Secretary General, declared in a speech on June 23rd 1998 that it was essential that ‘Russia must be on board’ if the West was to tackle the critical issue of Kosovo. (The text of this speech will be found on the website Kosova.newsroom). At this time it was obvious to Solana that Russia should be involved both because that would maximise the chances of a successful settlement and because to leave Russia out would be a colossal strategic snub. Yet a little while later, at US insistence and with the advent of a new government in Moscow, Russia was by-passed in the decision for war and all implementation was to be under tight NATO control.

The peoples of Europe are deeply divided about this disastrous limited war, and opposition to any reckless and perilous wider conflict is growing. This is a European crisis and it would be far better if European governments, who will have to live with the consequences of the war, took charge of resolving it. If the United States rather than Russia had been excluded from the negotiating process then the chances of a peaceful outcome would have been much greater. US involvement may gratify the hawks in Washington but overseas military adventures, with limitless prospects of further entanglements, are of no interest to the great mass of US citizens. It serves to distract the US public from such alarming problems as the growth of its prison population, and promises to erode those budget surpluses which make possible Clinton’s surprisingly bold approach to the problem of social security retirement funding. No country should arrogate to itself the role of global policeman and the US is particularly unsuited to it because the structure of its politics make it so vulnerable to special-interest lobbies. The reluctance of US political leaders to envisage casualties to their own forces is, so far as it goes, a positive fact but it is largely cancelled out by their ability and preparedness to launch destruction from afar.

Public opinion in the NATO countries is only gradually becoming aware of the dangers of the war already engaged, with its logic of uncontrolled spread and its capacity for sowing the seeds of new and wider conflicts. So long as hostilities continue there remains the likelihood that incidents will occur which will prompt and legitimate a stampede to military escalation. It should also be realized that NATO’s supposed objective of ‘degrading’ the ‘control and command’ function of the Yugoslav forces only makes sense to those bent on a wider war since, if successful, it would prevent Belgrade from ordering its forces to withdraw. And it would release Serb units in Kosovo from any remaining restraint. Accordingly the bombing offensive should be halted and negotiations should immediately begin. Such negotiations must now include, as they should have from the beginning, the government of Russia and representatives of the European Union. Only this will allow the Kosovo crimes to be addressed in a way that minimises further destruction and loss of life. The advent of peace would necessarily discomfort the Western hawks but also expose Milosevic to the attacks of all those Serbs now bound to him by the military onslaught but who have good cause to rue his long history of disastrous leadership.

The principles enunciated by the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations furnish the appropriate basis for conducting negotiations with Yugoslavia. They do so because past and present Yugoslav governments have subscribed to them, as have the NATO powers. These bodies have been established by arduous international agreement, and subsequently ratified by parliaments and assemblies, for the very purpose of regulating relations between states and monitoring their observance of human and civil rights. When the new Yugoslav Federation was established it vociferously insisted that it assumed all the international obligations of the old Federation. Of the previously-mentioned organisations the Council of Europe, a body specifically established to safeguard human rights and civil liberties, would be by far the most appropriate for dealing with the Kosovan crisis, so long as it was given appropriate facilities by the European Union. The Council represents the region threatened by the crisis and as a body has had no responsibility for the recent chapter of disasters.

The international organisations referred to are far from perfect and their mode of operation is open to improvement. Both in principle and in practice the Western powers, as important member states, have had every opportunity to obtain improvements to the operating principles of these organisations. In the past they have used their influence to block the emergence of more effective systems for making and executing decisions, notably Russian proposals for an OSCE secretariat and Security Council. The OSCE and the Council of Europe do include Russia and would ensure its participation in both negotiation and implementation of any agreement. Such participation would still boost the chances of a settlement as well as beginning to contain the threat of a new cold war.

A huge wrong has been done to the people of Kosovo. The European countries, who allowed this to happen, have a special responsibility for repairing the damage, so far as may be possible. For two decades the Western ignored or even aggravated the plight of the Kosovars. In the seventies it seemed that the people of Kosovo were at last emerging from a semi-colonial condition but, following Tito’s death, the growing strength of the racist variant of Serbian nationalism led to a worse subjugation than before. The Western powers aided and abetted the disorderly disintegration of the old Federation which had acted as a restraint on the Serb authorities. The IMF made worse a vicious economic crisis and denied the last Yugoslav government the money to pay its soldiers. Without a squeak from the West Milosevic imposed a brutal and arbitrary regime on the so-called province. The recent conflict in Kosovo has the elements of a classic anti-colonial struggle, as in Algeria, with guerrilla attacks and military repression, with some localised massacres, but not on a big scale, up to Rambouillet. Kosovan self-determination was a more justified and urgent cause than the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia which were so precipitately and fatally recognised by the Western powers. The Kosovan cause should have been supported throughout the nineties in appropriate diplomatic and material ways, much as, say, Sweden, the Soviet Union and the Anti-Apartheid Movement supported the cause of the African National Congress in South Africa.

The bombing has transformed a colonial conflict into ethnic cleansing on a large scale, a phenomenon which in the 20th century has so often required the cover of war to carry through – as the wartime fate of Armenians, Jews, Palestinians, Germans, Bosnians and, most recently, Serbs in the Krajina, demonstrates. The glib analogy that has been so often made between Hitler and Milosevic forgets that Britain and France did not declare war on Nazi Germany because of its practice of genocide; the Holocaust was the product of war not the casus belli. War was declared against Germany because it broke treaties and invaded neighbouring countries in the name of defending German minorities from persecution.

According to the classic Western theory of the just war the means should be proportionate to the ends, the decision for war should be made only after all prospects of mediation have been exhausted and as an act of legitimate authority. A war which causes massive harm to those on whose behalf it is undertaken, where a vital prospect of mediation has been shunned, which is in violation of treaties, and not put to the prior sanction of elected bodies, cannot be a just war. Those who brandish crusading causes, like Tony Blair, can be the most dangerous militarists of all. There is a world of difference between a just war and a holy war. The carnage of the First World War was held to be justified by the wrong done to Belgium. The colonial partition of Africa was undertaken in the name of suppression of the slave trade. In pursuing a justified cause we should always be alert to the ulterior motives and vested interests which might distort it, seeking, so far as may be possible, to favour approaches which stymie those interests and motives. Thus the more principled and effective abolitionists found it quite possible to support resistance to slavery and international covenants against the slave trade without endorsing wars of colonial conquest. Both the UN and the OSCE have been involved in the peaceful and/or negotiated resolution of difficult cases of national oppression, decolonisation and conflict containment in the past. The Council of Europe and European Union might aim to improve on their record. They would at least be able to do better than NATO which has not only mishandled a local crisis but managed to turn it into a threat to world peace.

How can the Kosovan cause be protected from cynical exploitation by great power interests? An alert public opinion and active peace movement would act as one check. But potentially so does an inclusive network of international and regional agreement. The pressures of international negotiation, agreement and military disengagement can help to neutralise or restrain both great power interests and reckless emotional spasms. It obliges participants to justify themselves in terms of international norms and public opinion. In a context of structured negotiation and cooperation the whole is a bit better than the parts since the participating states hold one another in check. We should not forget or discount the appalling role of Serb security forces in Kosovo or much of former Yugoslavia, nor of Russian forces in Chechnya, nor of Turkish forces in Kurdish areas, nor of US-backed and advised military regimes in Central America. We should press for a world where the special military units responsible for death squads are disbanded. But faced by the Kosovo crisis we cannot ignore the reality that Western military power acts as a potential check on Serbia and that Russian military capacity acts as a check on NATO. Without endorsing either military establishment we should be able to see the merit of pressing for a pacific accommodation between them, one which leads to a further programme of disengagement and disarmament.

And without giving any blank check to the KLA we can see that it offers a means of self-defence to the major national group in Kosovo and that its armed methods have drawn away support from the pacific parties which have previously won elections there. In any settlement there will have to be a role for the Yugoslav armed forces – though not for the paramilitaries and police battalions which were specially created to carry out the lawless terror and ethnic cleansing which the regular army found distasteful. If it is true that only an agreement can produce a peaceful Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo then the cooperation of the Yugoslav armed forces will be essential to this. Those who wish for peace in the Balkans and in Europe cannot simply wish away the various bodies of armed men that are in contention but must rather seek to disengage them in the most effective way possible. At any peace conference convoked by the Council of Europe it would be essential to insist on the presence of representatives of the people of Kosovo, including the party of Ibrahim Rugova, the KLA and representatives of minority groups. The KLA might well demand full and immediate self-determination for the people of Kosovo. While the KLA should have every right to put its point of view, the Conference would not be bound to accept it. Given the extensive bombing of Kosovo and the terror campaign conducted there by Serbian forces an immediate vote on the future of this territory is not possible anyway.

If the bombing was halted immediately Belgrade would also still have an incentive to settle to prevent any resumption. Does this mean that the policy of the doves will reap a dividend earnt by the hawks and thus prove that the latter were right all along? No, because the situation would have been better for the Kosovars at every stage if their case had been strongly pressed by all means short of war ? in 1991-2, in 1995 at Dayton, and in 1998-9. If the Western governments who now pose as champions of human rights had been genuinely concerned with the fate of the Kosovars on any of these occasions they could have achieved a decent settlement and avoided the humanitarian catastrophe we face. And similarly a settlement reached now, with a cease-fire and Russia’s good offices, would be better for the Kosovars, and better for Europe and the world, than the war, with all its incalculable long-term and short-term dangers. CP

Robin Blackburn is a Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, and editor of New Left Review, whose latest issue, NLR 234, has contributions on the war from Tariq Ali, Peter Gowan, Edward Said and Slavoj Zizek, price $$10 or ?6 from 6, Meard St, London W1V 3HR, UK.