Pristina: An Airport Too Far

In 1999, an incident at Pristina airport in Kosovo almost brought NATO into open conflict with Russia. This is how Michael Jackson (not that one) and James Blunt (that one) helped prevent a war.

John Bull
John Bull
Apr 13, 2018 · 23 min read
Russian forces on the road to Pristina

“Stuck in a Cold War mentality”

“Once you’ve decided to use force,” Clark told a BBC documentary crew after the war, “you should use it as rapidly as possible and as decisively as possible.”

“One bolshy serb engineer…”

Clark’s order left Jackson uneasy, and he could tell from Ellis’ body language that the Admiral felt the same.

A trip to Skopje

Despite his reservations, Jackson began to put plans for the operation into place. It was now 11:45. Intelligence suggested that the Russians wouldn’t reach Pristina until 15:00, so Jackson and Ellis quickly headed to Skopje airport where they knew that — by chance — US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was about to pass through.

The long screwdriver

Jackson knew he still had one last chance to contest the order. In line with his character, Clark’s orders contained one constraint — nothing was to happen until he had been personally briefed over video conference.

The UN Mandate

Jackson rang General Rupert Smith, Clark’s deputy, passing on this intelligence and expressing his extreme reservations about the assault on the airport going ahead. Smith agreed, and pointed out another problem — it would be outside the scope of the UN Mandate under which KFOR operated. This meant that the commander of each national force was entitled to consult with their superiors back home and, with their permission, decline to take part.

Understanding Russia

In 1999, Russia was approaching the nadir of its recent recent history. The economy was on the verge of collapse and President Yeltsin, its first post-Soviet president was ageing and increasingly infirm.

“I felt that evil was triumphing over good”

By June, however, Russian security services were reporting that NATO’s bombing was having little effect and that the coalition was starting to strain at the edges. That month, the Russian foreign office received a back channel approach from the German government asking Russia if they would intervene.

“Commander, KFOR”

To the politicians and generals in NATO, Russia’s intentions had become clear the moment that they crossed the border. What nobody could guess, however, was how determined they would be to see their plan through. If they met opposition, would they fight?

“Please confirm”

Little of this was known to the soldiers advancing on the ground. They were led by 1st Para. The day before they had been ready to assault the airport from the air, now they instead marched towards it at the head of a large column of KFOR troops.

A Russian sentry at the occupied airport.

“Overpower them”

When those orders came through, they caught Blunt by surprise. Instead of Jackson, it was General Clark who seemed to be giving the orders.

“Generals don’t need to get wet”

The situation de-escalated, things at the airport settled down into an uneasy peace. As the day progressed KFOR troops surrounded the airport. By evening, through careful pressure, they’d even managed to secure a foothold on the southern end of the runway.

Locking down the airspace

While relations on the ground began to thaw, efforts to prevent the resupply of the Russian forces by air began to take shape elsewhere. Throughout the afternoon and evening, the US State Department worked hard to persuade the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania that they should temporarily block all Russian military flights through their airspace. They were successful.

“I will not start World War Three for you.”

General Jackson arrived back at the shoe factory later that evening to news of the State Department’s success, and to confirmation that NATO forces now had air superiority over Kosovo too. With the airspace locked out to them, this meant that the Russian options in Pristina were severely limited.

The last roll

The person Jackson called was Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the British Defence Staff. As Clark listened on, Jackson outlined to Sir Charles the ground intelligence and recounted the discussion that had just taken place between himself and Clark.

Meanwhile in Kosovo…

General Richard Dannatt, commander of the British 4th Armoured Brigade read the order he had just received.

The aftermath

Dannatt’s call to the MOD alerted Whitehall to Clark’s continuing efforts to take Pristina airport. On Dunnatt’s advice they refused permission for the Armoured Brigade to take part, negating the ability of the order to be implemented.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.

John Bull

Written by

John Bull

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.