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.

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, so this was a rare visit to the shoe factory. US Navy Admiral Jim Ellis 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. Today they would get to have their morning briefing in person, rather than as a video conference.

Much of that briefing concerned the discussions between Serbia and NATO over the terms under which KFOR would enter Kosovo. These had been torturous, but a tentative agreement had been signed. General Jackson’s men would begin to cross the border tomorrow.

At about 10:35, the two men turned on one of the TVs in the operations room and tuned it to CNN to see how the press was reporting that breakthrough. 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, with KFOR painted hastily on them. The voiceover helpfully explained that this was the Russian contingent of KFOR, which their sources said was heading to the Kosovan capital, Pristina.

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 digest this, the main phone in the operations room began to ring. Simultaneously, the men realised this probably meant that the one person they didn’t want to see this footage yet almost certainly had.

When they heard the voice on the other end of the phone, this was confirmed.

“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, 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 a video conference with its senior commanders, however, Clarke 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 relearn 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. Both General and Admiral 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 in time would be to break the truce they had just signed with the Serbs. 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. 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. The Serbian army weren’t beaten and their morale was high. They would not react favourably to a surprise KFOR advance.

Jackson weighed up his options. The only way to beat the Russians to Pristina was either to use a small unit of Norwegian special forces, the Forsvarets Spesialkommando, who had infiltrated across the border the day before, or to use one of the trump cards he held in KFOR —the 5 UK Airborne Brigade, composed primarily of the 1st Paras, his old command.

The Norwegian force was too small, so Jackson and Ellis began to assess what the consequences of a contested assault would be. Jackson was confident that 1st Para could hold the airport, particularly after the commander of the French contingent agreed to contribute an airborne brigade of their own. Without support, however, the Serbs would eventually overwhelm that aerial beachhead.

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 luck — 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 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 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 the intelligence and expressing his extreme reservations about the operation. 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 Brigade to be involved. In more surprising news, Jackson’s HQ then received word from the American contingent. 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, unbuttoned his rank badge and threw it on the table in disgust. He determined that, in the conference call with Clark, he would resign rather than give the order for the airborne assault.

“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 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 at 5:00 the next day.

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.

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, at least, 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 him.

“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, the man in command of much of its southern forces — General Ivashov 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 now 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 decided, then they would attempt to take one — starting with seizure of the strategically important airport at Pristina. It was then that General Ivashov ordered the small Russian contingent in Bosnia to cross the border.

“Commander, KFOR”

To the politicians and generals, Russian intentions had become relatively clear the moment that they crossed the border. What nobody knew was how determined the Russians would be to see their plan through.

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, a KFOR column, led by the British contingent, crossed the border from Macedonia at 5:00 Saturday morning.

News of this began to filter back up the chain of command. Meanwhile, the Russian military attache in Macedonia suddenly arrived at the shoe factory and presented General Jackson with a letter. This confirmed that the Russians had officially occupied the airport at Pristina.

When he heard the news, General Clark became increasingly agitated. He was convinced that the Russian presence at Pristina was a danger to the whole NATO mission.

“Please confirm”

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

Well, almost at the head. A few miles in front 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. Since then they had been scouting 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 problems. 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.

The Blues and Royals were the first British troops to reach the airport’s perimeter. There they had found the Russians securely dug in. The British attempted to press forward. A tense standoff ensued. D Company decided to withdraw a short distance and request further orders from KFOR HQ.

A Russian sentry at the occupied airport.

“Overpower them”

Those further orders caught Blunt and his other officers by surprise — not least because they didn’t come from KFOR HQ, but direct from General Clark himself, whose voice they suddenly heard on the radio.

“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.

Blunt looked around, and saw that cost was rising by the second. An number of Serbian militiamen had arrived and were taking up position alongside the Russians. Meanwhile, the rest of the British column were advancing but had been held up at Kacinic. There, a Serbian General had spontaneously decided to block the pass. The situation had only been resolved by the the arrival of 1st Para commander Adrian Freer, known to his men as “Angry of Aldershot”.

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

The two men glared at each other, then both laughed. The advanced resumed.

At Pristina airport, however, this meant that for now the number of British soldiers present was still limited. A Washington Post reporter, sensing the seriousness of the situation, asked where the US troops were. Blunt grinned.

“Bringing up the rear.”

The Royals and Blues decided to query their orders, on the basis that the second part of the message had been garbled. The order to take the airport was reiterated. So they waited a bit longer and then calmly queried them again.

“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”

They waited a bit longer and then queried the orders again. This time, as Clark started speaking, a second voice interrupted — it was General Jackson. He told them to disregard Clark’s orders and to instead spread out and surround the airport as more KFOR units became available.

“We offered up a small prayer of thanks for General Jackson” Blunt said later in an interview, although he confessed that the unit’s officers had already agreed that they would refuse to carry out Clark’s order and risk Courts Martial.

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

“Generals don’t need to get wet”

By Saturday evening, the situation at the airport had settled into an uneasy peace. KFOR troops surrounded the airport and, through careful pressure, 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. 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. High winds and driving rain began to sweep in. Jackson gave his 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 he found himself ushered into the back of a battered, leaking command vehicle. The state of the vehicle highlighted that the Russian mission had been launched at short notice, but the fact that it contained the two-star General Zavarzin showed that the Russians were serious.

To begin with, conversation between the two men was stilted. The rain dripped through the roof on both men and 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. As the two men hunkered down out of the rain to chat, Jackson pulled a flask of whisky out of his map pocket and shared it with the General.

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

Locking down the airspace

Overnight and throughout Saturday, the US State Department worked to persuade the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to block Russian military flights through their airspace, in case the Russians tried to reinforce Pristina from the air. They were successful.

In frustration, the Russians tried 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.”

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

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

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

Clark’s efforts to assault the airport may have been temporary thwarted, but they were not done.

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 now limited. Nonetheless, Clark clearly remained convinced that the Russians remained a threat.

To his horror, Jackson discovered that in his absence Clark had tried to order another attempt on the airport. This time he had contacted Andrew Ridgway, Jackson’s Chief of Staff, directly, and told him to use helicopters to fly over 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 helicopters to the mission. To his relief, their commander had refused.

Just before Jackson’s arrival back at HQ, however, the US commander had contacted Ridgway again, indicating that he would — with reluctance — now release his helicopters for the mission. Ridgway suspected that Clark, or perhaps Washington, had intervened directly. Luckily by then the weather had deteriorated again and the order couldn’t be completed. Ridgway informed Jackson that an angry Clark was now inbound for Skopje though, due to arrive early on Sunday.

Clark arrived just before 9:00 the next day. From the moment he entered the shoe factory the situation deteriorated.

“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, they lacked supplies. Jackson filled Clark in on his meeting with General Zavarzin and stressed that the situation was thawing, but if pressed he had no doubt that Zavarzin and his men would fight.

Clark ignored them. He ordered the attack.

Seething, Jackson asked Clark for a meeting in private. In his office British General confronted American.

“We cannot go on like this!” Jackson said 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.

Jackson couldn’t help but say that he objected to the fact that Washington seemed to think it could run this war from a distance.

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

“By whose authority?!” Jackson demanded.

“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.

“Sir.” Jackson told Clark, formally. “I will not start World War Three for you.”

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

The last roll

Jackson immediately rang Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the British Defence Staff, and outlined the ground intelligence and the discussion that had just taken place between himself and Clark. Jackson told Guthrie he would resign before ordering an attack on Pristina airport.

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

Guthrie asked Jackson to put Clark on the phone.

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

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

Outside, Jackson seemed lost in thought.

Clark soon ushered Jackson back in. On the phone, Shelton had indicated 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. Clark decided to ignore the second part of the order.

“Mike, 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.”

“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. Then Jackson finally seemed to admit defeat. The British General agreed to give the order, but then offered his honest assessment — it would be impossible to properly block the runway with helicopters. They would need to do it with armoured vehicles. Relieved that things were finally moving, Clark agreed and modified his instructions.

Jackson saluted, left the room, and gave the order.

Meanwhile in Kosovo…

General Richard Dannatt, commander of the British 4th Armoured Brigade in Kosovo received Jackson’s order to seize the runways and read it with a grim face. The Armoured were the only unit in KFOR capable of carrying out such a runway blockade, but Dannatt immediately recognised that the order was ridiculous. It would provoke a fire-fight with the Russians.

“Like hell we will.” Dannatt said to himself.

Handily, he suddenly realised, as it involved an armoured assault, this operation would be outside the scope of the UN Mandate under which KFOR operated. Dannatt remembered that this meant that the commander of each national force involved was entitled to consult with their superiors back home and, with their permission, decline to take part.

Dannatt picked up the phone and rang the Ministry of Defence…

Author’s notes

Dannatt’s call to the MOD alerted Whitehall to the seriousness of the situation and, on his recommendation, they refused permission for the Armoured Brigade to take part.

Alerted to Clark’s continued efforts to seize Pristina despite orders, Guthrie contacted Shelton directly who — in no uncertain terms — ordered Clark to stop. Two months later, it was announced that Clark would step down from the position of SACEUR early.

In 2004, Wes Clark announced his intention to run 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 does not believe him.

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