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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
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On Friday 11th June 1999, in a run down shoe factory just outside of Skopje, Macedonia, two NATO commanders sat down for their regular morning meeting.

The old shoe factory was the headquarters of KFOR, the NATO army being assembled to act as peacekeepers in Kosovo. British Lieutenant General Michael “Mike” Jackson, KFOR’s commander, had been offered Skopje’s Intercontinental hotel by their hosts, but had turned it down. The shoe factory might have been less comfortable, but it had plenty of space for his staff. Practicality was more important than luxury.

The other man was normally stationed in Naples. Admiral Jim Ellis of the US Navy was Commander-in-Chief of all Allied Forces in Southern Europe — a key role during the Kosovo campaign. The two men had also become good friends and Ellis had flown over so that they could catch up in person, rather than do their usual video conference.

The briefing largely focused on the discussions between Serbia and NATO over the terms under which KFOR would enter Kosovo. These had been torturous, but a tentative agreement had recently been signed. As a result, General Jackson’s men were now preparing to cross the border on the following day, the 12th June.

At about 10:35, the two men turned on one of the TVs in the operations room and tuned it to CNN, hoping to see how the press was reporting the breakthrough in negotiations. What they saw instead amazed them. There, on the screen, were pictures of a column of about 250 troops and vehicles advancing out of Bosnia into Kosovo, with the letters KFOR painted hastily on them. The CNN presenter helpfully explained that viewers were seeing the Russian contingent of KFOR, which their sources said was now heading to the Kosovan capital, Pristina.

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Russian forces on the road to Pristina

This was news to both Ellis and Jackson — because KFOR didn’t have a Russian contingent.

“It was fair to say the manner of their arrival was unscripted.” Jackson commented later.

Before the two men could properly process what they were seeing, the main phone in the operations room began to ring. Simultaneously, the men realised this meant that the one person they didn’t want to see this footage before they’d had time to work out was happening themselves, almost certainly had. Jackson answered the phone.

“General Jackson.” Said Wes Clark, US General and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR). “You will secure Pristina airport before the Russians arrive.”

“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.”

It was a maxim that the four-star General, who had been decorated for bravery in Vietnam, definitely lived by. Both Jackson and Ellis had already witnessed this first hand. KFOR was a multinational force, with a variety of different military styles and cultures. As a result, it needed to be sensitively handled. During an early video conference with its senior commanders, however, Clark had decided to indulge in a piece of Patton-esque bravado.

“We are moving to total war.” He said. “If there is a battle it will be tough. Very tough. Hill to hill. House to house. Street to street. It will be bayonets and close combat in guerrilla war. NATO solidiers must re-learn the spirit of the bayonet!”

There was an awkward silence. Sensing he wasn’t getting the reaction he wanted, Clark broke it himself.

“Do you understand the spirit of the bayonet?!” He demanded of the General in charge of the German contingent.

“Yes… SACEUR?” The man replied, hesitantly and with slight bemusement.

Clark seemed particularly prone to strong reactions whenever the Russians were involved. Jackson and Ellis had witnessed this when Clark became briefly convinced that the Russians were trying to sail their Black Sea Fleet into the Mediterranean to impede NATO operations. Clark had demanded that Ellis do something about it, suggesting he lean on Turkey and force them to deny Russian warships permission to cross the Bosphorus.

“SACEUR, I can’t do that.” The Admiral patiently explained. He pointed out that it would break the Montreux Convention, something that even in WW2 no nation had been prepared to do.

“I am always reluctant to go ad hominem,” General Jackson said later, “but I think, in some quarters, there was still a sense that the Cold War was inbound. That the Russians weren’t the Russians of 1999, but the soviets of 1979. This underpinned the approach taken.”

“One bolshy serb engineer…”

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

The British general knew that the only way to make it to Pristina before the Russians would be to move straight away, breaking the truce that had just been signed with the Serbs. This wasn’t just politically problematic, but logistically risky as well.

In Britain, France and America, politicians were claiming that the air campaign had been an enormous success and that the Serbian army was broken in terms of both material and morale, but Jackson knew this wasn’t true. The Serbian army had survived the air campaign almost entirely intact. This, and the fact that they were leaving Kosovo on their own terms, was being seen as a victory of sorts by the Serbian army. They weren’t beaten and their morale was high. They would not react favourably to a surprise KFOR advance.

Jackson weighed up his options. Norwegian special forces, the Forsvarets Spesialkommando, had infiltrated across the border the day before. Jackson could order them to advance on the airport, but Jackson suspect that the chances of this being a contested assault were high. The Norwegians were few in number and would struggle to take, let alone hold it against any major resistance.

His only realistic option was to use one of the trump cards he held in KFOR —the 5 UK Airborne Brigade, composed primarily of the British 1st Battalion, Paratroop Regiment.

The ‘Paras’ were Jackson’s old command and he knew them well. He believed that they could take the airport from the air, particularly after the commander of the French contingent agreed to contribute an airborne brigade of their own. The airport wasn’t an easy position to defend, however, and without support this Anglo-French assault would eventually be overwhelm by superior Serbian (or perhaps Russian) forces.

This meant the rest of KFOR’s forces in Macedonia would have to force the Serb defences on the border and advance on Pristina as quickly as possible. As the intelligence gathered by the Norwegians had revealed, however, this was far from easy.

“The bridges and tunnels on the road through the narrow Kacinic defile in to Kosovo had been prepared for demolition” Jackson wrote later. “If any one of them had been blown we’d have been in real difficulty.”

“It would only have taken one bolshy Serb engineer and we’d have lost our overland route for quite a while. So even if we didn’t have to fight our way in, it might take days or even weeks before we could relieve our soldiers at Pristina over land.”

All of this also assumed that the Russians wouldn’t try and force the airport themselves on arrival, or that the inevitable stand-off wouldn’t accidentally spill over into violence. The Paras would be under orders to hold their position and fire back. In both cases, a bloodbath — and perhaps even a war — would ensue.

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.

Ellis cornered Albright in the airport’s VIP lounge and the two men tried to press on her the seriousness of the situation. She agreed to phone Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and ask for an explanation. Ivanov denied anything was unusual about the Russian movement. The two men left frustrated, Ellis to Naples and Jackson back to HQ.

Jackson arrived back at the shoe factory at about 13:00. There, bad news awaited — NATO’s Combined Operations Air Centre in Italy was refusing to provide any air cover without a direct order from Admiral Ellis.

This crisis was averted, but then the news got worse: a Russian news agency reported that six military transports had taken off from Moscow carrying a thousand airborne soldiers of their own.

Minutes later, final written orders arrived from Clark:

Move and occupy Pristina Airfield.

To Clark, this no doubt seemed a bold opportunity to aggressively seize the initiative. It was an operation worthy of his hero General Patton. On the ground though Jackson, the ex-Para, increasingly saw the a different WW2 operation shaping up: This was a second Market Garden.

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.

“To ‘use the long screwdriver’ was characteristic of Clark, and indeed of the US military in general.” Jackson wrote later. “They were always reluctant to delegate.”

While waiting for this to be arranged, Jackson tried to secure permission from the Serbs to cross the border earlier. This was refused. Then he received an intelligence update: the Russians were now expected to reach Pristina at 18:00, but there was also no evidence of any transports en route from Moscow.

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.

Sure enough, ten minutes later Jackson received an apologetic message from the commander of the French contingent — Paris had informed him that they would not allow his airborne troops to be involved. In more surprising news, Jackson’s HQ then received word from the American contingent too. They offered six Apache attack helicopters, but would not allow any of their ground troops to take part. The news shocked the room.

“The view of my staff, including those Americans attached to KFOR HQ, was that Washington wanted the operation to take place but not at the risk of American lives.”

Jackson asked his staff to leave the room, and prepared for a conference call with Clark. He was, in essence, being ordered to send the Paras in alone and unsupported. Unbuttoning his rank badge, he threw it onto the table in disgust. He decided that if Clark refused to rescind the order for the airborne assault then he would resign. He refused to give it to his men.

“For the first time in my almost forty years in the army,” He wrote later, “I had been given an order I felt I could not, in principle, accept.”

Luckily for Jackson, his resignation proved to be unnecessary. When the conference call began, Clark tersely announced that Washington had informed him that Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin had talked. Yeltsin had promised that the Russians would withdraw.

“We will now wait to see if Yeltsin has lied to the president.” Clark said, before ordering Jackson instead to keep the Paras on alert for a ‘go’ order.

Later, General Smith ring and quietly informed Jackson that he could stand them down. KFOR would carry out the original planned advance, beginning at 5:00 on the 12th June.

Understanding Russia

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

Indeed a White House aide would later confirm that the conversation Clark reported between the two presidents had indeed taken place, but that it was one of the most awkward and incoherent of the entire Clinton presidency. Yeltsin may well have promised that the Russians would withdraw, but he had also rambled incoherently for some time about how Clinton should join him for a secret meeting on a submarine alone where they could speak freely together as men.

The crises in the Balkans in the nineties had highlighted to the world that Russia was, for now at least, no longer a great power. The first UN intervention in the fragmenting Yugoslavia had been bad enough for Russian pride, proof that Russia alone could no longer police the former COMINTERN states. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, however, was both infuriating and humiliating.

In the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia Russia, had thrown its backing behind Serbia and secured the position of its president, Slobodan Milosevic. In doing so it was able to project the image that it was still the great protector of the smaller Slavic state.

That image was swiftly shattered when NATO intervened in Kosovo’s war of liberation against Serbia. When the air campaign began, Russia rattled its sabre and stood by its ally. The Russian government threatened to withdraw from nuclear reduction talks and veto all UN Security Council Resolutions.

“The world in this decade has never been so close to nuclear war.” Said Victor Chernomyrdin in May. “I appeal to NATO leaders to show courage and suspend the air raids.”

NATO ignored his threat and an air campaign against Serbia was launched.

“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.

What Yeltsin’s thoughts on the matter were remains unclear. The President’s grip on power had begun to fade alongside his faculties. To various members of his government, however, it seemed that an opportunity might exist for Russia to emerge from the Kosovo war with some pride after all. Importantly, this group included Foreign Minister Ivanov, General Ivashov (the man in command of much of its southern forces ) and the increasingly influential head of the KGB’s successor organisation the FSB, Vladimir Putin.

With or without Yeltsin’s direct knowledge, a deal was struck with the Germans behind-the-scenes. Russia would inform Milosevic that they would withdraw their support if he didn’t reach an agreement with NATO. Russia’s stipulation was that the subsequent occupation would be under a United Nations Mandate rather than as NATO, and that they would receive some share of the credit. They also believed that they had been promised their own, independent sector of Kosovo to manage. The warning was duly dispatched to Milosevic, who realised the writing was on the wall and agreed to NATO’s terms.

By the time KFOR began to take shape, however, it became clear to the Russians that not all of their conditions were going to be met. Unwilling to risk dividing the country along ethnic lines, NATO were not going to grant Russia their own zone of control.

“I felt as if I were the defeated one.” Said General Ivashov later. “That was the feeling I had, as if I, myself, had been defeated. I felt that evil was triumphing over good.”

If NATO wouldn’t give them a zone, the group of influencial Russians decided, then they would try to take one — starting with seizure of the strategically important airport at Pristina. This was why General Ivashov had ordered the small Russian contingent in Bosnia to cross the border.

“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?

The first men to encounter the Russians in person were the Norwegians of Forsvarets Spesialkommando. They witnessed the scenes as the small Russian force was greeted by crowds in Pristina, and then watched silently from a distance as they occupied the airport. 35 miles away. The next day, a KFOR column, led by the British contingent, finally crossed the border from Macedonia at 5:00.

At roughly the same time, the Russian military attache in Macedonia suddenly arrived at the shoe factory unannounced. There, he presented General Jackson with a letter which, he stated, made it official: the Russians had occupied the airport at Pristina and they did not intend to leave.

When he heard this news, General Clark became increasingly agitated. More than ever, he was now convinced that the Russian presence at Pristina airport was a danger to the whole NATO mission. He resolved to act.

“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.

Well, almost. Some distance ahead of them moved a small scout force comprising D Company Blues and Royals. It was one of their number, Captain James Blunt, who had been the first man to officially cross the border that day.

An officer in the Life Guards, Blunt had volunteered to join the Blues and Royals for the deployment to Kosovo. They had scouted aerial targets inside the border throughout the air campaign, before pulling back to act as a screening force during the official entry. A keen musician, he kept a guitar inside his light reconnaissance tank. In 2002, he would take that guitar and leave the army to pursue a music career. Three years later, his break out hit You’re Beautiful would sell 11,000,000 copies worldwide.

That Saturday morning though, Blunt had bigger things to worry about. Most critically, the 200 Russian heavily-armed soldiers currently pointing their guns at his men and threatening to shoot them if they tried to enter Pristina airport.

Warned by the Norwegians about the Russian build up, the Blues and Royals had been ordered to make a bee-line for the airport. At its perimeter they had found the Russians securely dug in. The British attempted to press forward but the Russians blocked their path and a tense standoff ensued. D Company decided to withdraw a short distance and request further orders from KFOR HQ.

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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.

“The direct command [that] came in from General Wesley Clark was to overpower them.” Blunt said later. “Various other words were used that seemed unusual to us. Words such as ‘destroy’ came down the radio.”

Blunt and his officers looked at each other. The line hadn’t been great, but Clark’s orders were clear. Seize the airport from the Russians, no matter the cost.

What was obvious to them was that this cost was rising by the second. A number of Serbian militiamen had arrived and were now taking up position alongside the Russians.

Worse, there was no sign of the rest of the KFOR column — as Jackson had suspected, they had been held up at the Kacinic defile.

There, a Serbian general had spontaneously decided to block the pass. A rapidly deteriorating situation had only been resolved by the the arrival of 1st Para commander Adrian Freer on the scene, known to his men as “Angry of Aldershot”.

“Let us through, mate.” He’d said to the Serbian general with an evil grin. “We’re off to make love to the Russians.”

The two men glared at each other, then both laughed and the Serbians waved the column through. The advanced resumed.

The troops at the airport had no idea that this was the cause of the delay, or that the advance had resumed. All they knew was that they were the only force on the scene, that they had been ordered to attack if necessary to secure the airport and that they were increasingly outnumbered.

A Washington Post reporter, riding with the scout company, sensed the growing seriousness of the situation. Nervously, he asked where the US troops (who made up the majority of KFOR’s column) were. Blunt grinned.

“Bringing up the rear.”

The Blues and Royals decided to query their orders, claiming that the second part of the message had been garbled. For a second time, they were ordered to take the airport from the Russians. Instead, they decided to wait.

“You have political agendas and they overshadow reality.” Blunt later said. “They were losing sight of what we were really supposed to be doing — stopping the aggression by the Serbs against the Albanians”

The officers of the Blues and Royals conferred among themselves. What they were being asked to do was, they felt, well outside the bounds of KFOR’s mission, both legally and morally.

“There are things that you do along the way in war that are right and those that you feel are absolutely wrong.” Blunt said. “That sense of moral judgement is drilled into us in the British Army.”

Together, they made a choice: they would ask one final time for their orders to be clarified. If they were ordered to attack again though, then they agreed that they would collectively risk Courts Martial and refuse to carry it out.

They let some time pass and then queried their orders again. Clark started speaking, but to their relief this time a second voice interrupted him — it was General Jackson. The KFOR commander ordered them to disregard Clark’s orders. They were instead to hold position, then spread out and surround the airport as more KFOR units arrived on the scene.

“We offered up a small prayer of thanks for General Jackson” Blunt confessed later in an interview.

“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.

Meanwhile, rumours began to circulate within the press corps that there was a situation at Pristina airport. When KFOR’s media team began to pressure Jackson to give an interview, the general realised he could kill two birds with one stone. Jumping into a helicopter, he headed for the airport.

On the way, the weather began to change for the worse. As high winds and driving rain swept in and covered the skies about the airport, Jackson gave a press conference from the southern end of the runway. He reassured the assembled press that the occupation was proceeding as planned and that there were no issues with the Russians. The fact that Russian APCs spent the entire press conference driving at speed along the runway behind him meant that the press weren’t entirely convinced, but for now at least the situation was calmed.

After the press had dispersed, Jackson quietly carried out the other half of his planned visit. Approaching a Russian sentry, he identified himself and asked to be introduced to the commander of the Russian force.

A few minutes later Jackson and an interpreter found themselves ushered into the back of a battered, leaking command vehicle. The state of the vehicle helped show that the Russian mission had been launched at short notice, but the fact that it contained the two-star general Zavarzin told Jackson that the Russians were serious about what they were doing.

To begin with, conversation between the men was stilted. The rain dripped through the roof onto both men and the vehicle’s equipment, filling the cabin with the smell of burning wires. Then Jackson dismissed his interpreter and switched to fluent Russian, which he’d learnt as a young officer.

“Listen.” He said. “I used to get wet as a company commander, but generals don’t need to get wet.”

Zavarzin laughed and the two men jumped out of the van and ran towards the wrecked airport terminal where some of the roof was still intact. Jackson pulled a flask of whisky out of his map pocket, offered it to Zavarin and the two men hunkered down out of the rain to chat.

“Relations warmed up after that.” Jackson said later.

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.

In frustration, the Russians decided to push their luck. They informed Romania that a transport plane would shortly be entering their airspace, permission or not.

“You could do that.” The Romanian Defence Minister, Victor Babuic told Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov over the phone. “Of course we would be obliged to send up an aircraft to intercept your aircraft.”

Babuic pointed out that in such tense situations, accidents often happen. He couldn’t guarantee that the pilot wouldn’t mistakenly shoot the Russians down.

“Of course this is a crime.” Babuic said, apologetically. “He would be prosecuted under our law, and he would be sent to jail for seven years.”

He paused for effect.

“But he would also be a national hero.” He added, thoughtfully.

The warning worked. No further attempts to reinforce the Russian contingent at the airport were made.

“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.

This was the good news. The bad news was that Clark remained convinced that the Russians remained a threat, and was still determined to take full control of the airport, by force if necessary.

Andrew Ridgway, Jackson’s Chief of Staff, told the general that in his absence they had barely managed to foil another attempt by Clark to launch an attack. With Jackson off-grid at the airport, Clark had contacted Ridgway directly and told him to use helicopters to fly in and block the runway. Horrified, but unwilling to go against a direct order from NATO’s senior commander, Ridgway had contacted the US KFOR contingent and asked them to commit attack helicopters to the mission. To his relief, their commander had refused, saying that he believed this fell outside the scope of the UN Mandate.

Ridgway had hoped this would mark the end of the attempt, but shortly afterwards the US commander had contacted Ridgway again, indicating that he had changed his mind. He would now, with reluctance, release his helicopters for the mission. Ridgway suspected that Clark had intervened directly, but luckily by then the weather had deteriorated significantly. Ridgway had informed Clark that the order could not be carried out until the forecast improved.

Jackson was warned by his Chief of Staff that a furious Clark was now inbound for Skopje to personally oversee things. He was due to arrive early the next day, Sunday 13th June.

Clark did indeed arrive just before 9:00 the next day. Any hope that KFOR HQ had that he might have calmed down en route soon disappeared.

“He still seemed obsessed with the Russians, and wouldn’t focus on anything else” Jackson wrote later. “Clark was convinced that they intended to reinforce the airport.”

KFOR HQ briefed Clark on the current situation: the airspace was locked out to the Russians, they were surrounded and they lacked supplies. Jackson also told Clark about his meeting with General Zavarzin. He stressed that the situation on the ground was thawing, but that he had no doubt that Zavarzin and his men would fight if they were pressed.

Clark listened. Then ordered the attack.

Seething, Jackson asked Clark for a meeting in private. The two men retreated to Jackson’s office where the British general confronted his American superior.

“We cannot go on like this!” Jackson pleaded in frustration. “We need to move on. Let me sort it out with the Russians!”

Clark was unmoved. He insisted the airport operation would go ahead.

“I won’t do it! Sir, I just won’t do it!” Jackson shouted, then told Clark that the US government had to stop trying to micro-manage the ground war from a distance.

“Mike, these orders aren’t Washington’s orders,” Clark said. “they’re coming from me.”

“By whose authority?!” Jackson demanded, in surprise.

“By my authority as SACEUR.”

“You don’t have that authority!”

Clark smiled and said that he’d spoken to NATO Secretary General Javier Solana that morning. Solana had given him the authority to do whatever Clark felt was best — and to him, that meant seizing and blocking the whole runway.

The two men looked at each other in silence.

“Sir.” Jackson finally said, with cold formality. “I will not start World War Three for you.”

He informed a stunned Clark that he would be contacting his superiors and picked up the phone.

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.

Jackson told Guthrie that an attack on Pristina airport was unnecessary, and that he would resign before ordering one.

“For God sake, Mike!” Guthrie said, “Don’t do that!”

He asked Jackson to put Clark on the phone.

“I must say Wes,” Sir Charles told Clark directly, “I agree with Mike, and so does Hugh.”

This threw Clark off guard. Hugh Shelton was the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff — Clarks own boss. Flustered, Clark asked Jackson to leave the room so he could ring Shelton directly.

A few minutes later Clark called Jackson back in, who now seemed lost in thought. On the phone, Shelton had told Clark that whilst Washington backed the idea of blocking the runways in principle, it should not be done at the expense of a confrontation with the Russians. Unknown to Shelton, Clark had already decided that he was going to ignore the second part of that request.

“Mike,” Clark said, stiffly. “Do you understand that as a NATO commander I’m giving you a legal order, and that if you don’t accept that order you’ll have to resign your position and get out of the chain of command?”

“I do.” Jackson replied.

“Okay. I’m giving you an order to block the runways at Pristina airfield. I want it done. Is that clear?”

Clark watched Jackson carefully, perhaps expecting Jackson to finally resign, allowing Clark to personally order US helicopters to carry out the operation instead.

Instead, the KFOR commander seemed to finally admit defeat. Jackson agreed to give the order, but asked Clark to consider his honest assessment — that it would be impossible to properly block the runway with US attack helicopters. Clark suggested modifying the order to use armour instead.

Relieved that things were finally moving, Clark agreed. Jackson saluted, left the room and gave the order.

Meanwhile in Kosovo…

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

He understood why it had been sent to him — the 4th Armoured were the only armoured unit in Kosovo at that point that could carry it out — but what it was suggesting seemed ridiculous: advance on Pristina airport and seize the runway.

Dannatt immediately recognised that the order was woefully out of touch with the situation on the ground. It would provoke a fire-fight with the Russians.

Dannatt read the order again, then realised something important. This was technically an assault order, and that meant it fell outside the scope of the UN Mandate under which KFOR operated. Dannatt remembered that this meant he was entitled to consult with his own direct superiors back home and, with their permission, decline to take part.

“Like hell we will.” Dannatt said to himself. He picked up the phone and rang the Ministry of Defence…

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.

The call also alerted Sir Charles Guthrie to Clark’s plan. Sir Charles immediately contacted Hugh Shelton directly to demand an explanation. Shelton in turn immediately contacted Clark and — in no uncertain terms — ordered him to cease any and all actions against Pristina airport.

The Russian forces would go on to withdraw peacefully.

Two months later, in August 1999, the US government announced Wes Clark would be taking early retirement from the position of NATO SACEUR.

In 2004, Wes Clark announced that he would be running for President. Asked for his opinion, Hugh Shelton told reporters: “I wouldn’t vote for him.”

In his autobiography, General Mike Jackson insists that he did not know that Dannatt would request permission from the MOD for the final assault.

To this day, General Wes Clark refuses to believe him.

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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.

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.

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