Yugoslavia: the NATO Operation before Ukraine

Many people who have come of age in this decade may know nothing about Yugoslavia or may not even know that there was ever such a country. I have written several posts about what happened there in the 1990s (see the notes below), and this one will serve as an overview and a lens through which people can understand what the NATO alliance began to do a few years later in Ukraine in the hope of weakening and balkanizing Russia as it did in the Balkan region and the USSR before that.

“I think that, unfortunately, Ukraine is disappearing, but it’s our fault… We have to accept, in fact, a narcissistic wound… The West must say, ‘Alright, we went too far. We pushed. Russia responded, and we continued.’ It’s time to stop now. Otherwise, it could end very badly or last for years, with all the associated problems for Europe… in Europe the energy crisis had been hanging over us for years anyway. It was an American idea to cut off Russian gas, cut off Germany from Russia etc., but it could be worse. We could have an exodus of millions of people… This is where geopolitics hits its limits. My wish for everyone [for the new year] is that they at least change their way of thinking a little, grow a little bit, rise above the mediocrity, beyond the pure will for domination that does not usually lead to anything worthwhile.”

– Caroline Galactéros, president of Géopragma, Interview with Irina Dubois, December 19, 2022.


Yugoslavia was located between East and West and was at the crossroads of the empires that came into conflict in WWI, and at the crossroads between European Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, and the Islamic world.

The most significant event of the 20th century may be the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917. This set the stage for the great conflict of the century: capitalism vs. socialism. The capitalist countries (US, UK, France, Germany, and others) reacted immediately against the revolution in Russia. The most extreme reaction came later from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. In this conflict, Croatia allied itself with Germany and Italy between 1929 and 1945 and founded the fascist nationalist movement known as Ustasha. Serbia took the side of the USSR (with whom they had cultural roots through the Christian Orthodox Church). Ustasha members murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma as well as political dissidents in Yugoslavia during World War II.[1]

After WWII, the Balkan Peninsula was unified as a multi-ethnic socialist state called Yugoslavia, led by Josip Tito. This was a tremendous achievement because, in addition to the challenge of uniting such a religiously and ethnically diverse region, there was the fact that Croatia had been a Nazi ally and had carried out massive atrocities against Serbians, Jews, and other minorities. The Serbian and Montenegrin partisans had put up a famous resistance with the help of Soviet, American, and British allies. Twenty years later, the new Yugoslavian state had become successful in providing good living standards, and it resolved (or suppressed, as many would assert) historical tensions between Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Tito had bad relations with Stalin after WWII, and thus Yugoslavia developed its own form of socialism independently, and it was more open and friendly to Europe and the NATO nations. In fact, Tito had made promises to NATO that he would block a Soviet advance if war broke out.[2] By the 1960s, Yugoslavia was a popular travel destination for Europeans. In 1970, no one could have foreseen the war that would erupt in the Balkans in the 1990s.

When Tito died in 1980, the Soviet Union was entering a period of instability, and all of Europe was entering a new era of economic disruption and neoliberal doctrine. The governments of the US, UK, France, and Germany wondered what to do about Yugoslavia. They could have helped it stay together, but they didn’t want to preserve its independent socialist economy. They wanted it to come into the EU and NATO system with a capitalist economy. They decided to promote nationalism and break Yugoslavia up into independent states, and, interestingly, modern Germany became very keen to help Croatia, a former Nazi ally, achieve independence. This was a shock to Serbians because they had memories of the Croatian atrocities against them. Tensions and mistrust escalated at a time when there was tremendous economic insecurity and people turned to demagogic leaders. Wars broke out in the early 1990s and lasted until the end of the decade.[3]

People of all the minority groups lived throughout Yugoslavia, so it was no simple matter to break the country into separate geographical zones called Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia and so on. There were Serbian and Bosnian minorities in Croatia, and likewise in the other parts of Yugoslavia—Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Slovenia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. During the war, atrocities were committed by all sides, but in general the US, UK, France, and Germany decided that the Serbians were “the bad guys” and Serbia was attacked by NATO forces for three months in the spring of 1999, after a long campaign of vilification that had gone on for several years. 

Twenty-four years later, it is still difficult to discuss the root causes of this war and the atrocities committed during it. European and American media and historiography depicted Serbia as the sole perpetrator and described the outbreak of war as just the mysterious reappearance of ancient ethnic hatreds. In 1999, the media justified the NATO attack on Serbia as a necessary “humanitarian intervention,” regardless of the massive level of destruction by aerial bombardment required to be so humane.[4]

Noam Chomsky commented on the war in an interview he gave in 2006:

Actually, we have for the first time a very authoritative comment on that from the highest level of the Clinton administration, which is something that one could have surmised before, but now it is asserted. This is from Strobe Talbott who ran the Pentagon/State Department intelligence Joint Committee on the diplomacy during the whole affair including the bombing, so that’s the very top of Clinton administration. He just wrote the foreword to a book by his Director of Communications, John Norris, and in the foreword, he says if you really want to understand what the thinking was of the top of the Clinton administration, this is the book you should read. Take a look at John Norris’s book. What he says is that the real purpose of the war had nothing to do with concern for Kosovar Albanians. It was because Serbia was not carrying out the required social and economic reforms, meaning it was the last corner of Europe which had not subordinated itself to the US-run neoliberal programs, so therefore it had to be eliminated. That’s from the highest level. Again, we could have guessed it, but I’ve never seen it said before.[5]

In an interview recorded in 2009, French General Pierre-Marie Gallois denounced the European powers’ lack of  commitment to peace and the principles enshrined in the UN Charter and the Helsinki accords to preserve borders as they were. He decried the violation of these principles evident in the efforts of Germany, the United States, France, and the UK to redraw the borders of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The purported reason for the breakup—that Yugoslavia was too big and too multi-ethnic to be viable—made no sense. The resulting smaller states would be just as multi-ethnic and possibly more non-viable than Yugoslavia. Mr. Gallois concluded:

Westerners performed absolutely unethically, with a duplicity that shocked me, as it came from the purported creators of human rights—France, the UK, and to some extent Germany. Nevertheless, old demons, particularly German ones, re-emerged and created the existing chaos in these lands, whether it was Bosnia, Republika Srpska, or Kosovo. [6] 

The following excerpt from Diana Johnstone’s book Fool’s Crusade gives a sobering account of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, developed by the Clinton administration, that redefined NATO’s role after the Cold War, turning it into an aggressive alliance beyond international law with a self-appointed role to act outside of countries in the alliance “where there may be little or no host-nation support.” This doctrine made it clear that NATO had given itself the right to invade other countries whenever it felt its “stability” was threatened. The new concept also dashed any hopes of nuclear disarmament, as nuclear weapons were deemed essential because conventional forces could not provide adequate deterrent force.

Looking back on the years leading up to the war that started in Ukraine in 2022, we can see how the NATO Strategic Concept of the 1990s has been adapted to provoke Russia. Because Russia has its own nuclear deterrent, it could not be attacked directly, so Ukraine was slowly turned into an economic, military and political dependency of NATO, then it was used to supposedly weaken Russia during many years of conflict and economic war.


Diana Johnstone, Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, Postscript: Perpetual War, (New York: Monthly Review Press, London: Pluto Press, 2002), 265-269

NATO’S birthday present

NATO’s 50th birthday celebration was held in Washington between 23 and 25 April 1999. The bombing of Yugoslavia had been going on for a month. Thanks to Kosovo, NATO was already asserting its new role as a “humanitarian” strike force unlimited by geographical boundaries or international law. The anniversary was the occasion for official adoption of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, prepared by the Clinton administration and accepted by Allied leaders obliged to make a strong show of unity in the midst of a war. The Strategic Concept includes three important elements which clinch the dominance of the United States over its European allies.

1. Nuclear weapons. The Strategic Concept emphatically laid to rest any remaining hope of nuclear disarmament since “the Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. Nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable. Thus, they remain essential to preserve peace.” Moreover, nuclear weapons must remain in Europe “for the foreseeable future.” The demand of the peace movement of the 1980s for a denuclearized Europe was thereby definitively rejected. “The presence of United States conventional and nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America.” Thus, “the Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe and kept up to date where necessary…”

2. Interdependence. The “inseparable link” between North America (that is, the United States) and Europe is central to the Strategic Concept. There will be no wriggling out of the grip of U.S.-dominated NATO on the part of the European Union or of individual member states. Thus, “The principle of collective effort in Alliance defense is embodied in practical arrangements that enable the Allies to enjoy the crucial political, military and resource advantages of collective defense, and prevent the renationalization of defense policies, without depriving the Allies of their sovereignty.”

3. The prospect of more “out-of-area” war. This is couched in the usual terms of reluctant acceptance of duty: “Regional and, in particular, geostrategic considerations within the Alliance will have to be taken into account, as instabilities on NATO’s periphery could lead to crisis or conflicts requiring an Alliance military response, potentially with short warning times.” The Concept points to the “special logistical challenges” involved in mounting and sustaining “operations outside the Allies’ territory, where there may be little or no host-nation support.” This can only mean invading countries where NATO is not wanted.

The vaguely defined “security interests” of NATO member states were seen to be threatened, no longer by Soviet communism, but by “risks of a wider nature, including acts of terrorism, sabotage and organized crime, and by the disruption of the flow of vital resources” as well as “uncontrolled movements of large numbers of people, particularly as a consequence of armed conflicts.”

Threats all around

After the suicide airliner bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it was commonly said that “the world changed on September 11.” One thing that had not changed, however, was the Pentagon’s aggressive strategy. The attacks merely provided the most persuasive excuse for inflating the military budget since the Soviet threat. In the foreword to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report issued on 30 September 2001, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out that the review and report were “largely completed before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. In important ways, these attacks confirm the strategic direction and planning principles that resulted from this review.” September 11 will “require the U.S. to move forward more rapidly in these directions.”

The Pentagon’s stated objective is to protect and advance U.S. national interests that “span the world.” This involves precluding hostile domination of “critical areas, particularly Europe, Northeast Asia, the East Asian littoral, and the Middle East and Southwest Asia.”

The essential innovation concerns the definition of “threats.” From its pinnacle of power, the United States can scarcely perceive any tangible threats. Instead of feeling safer, the “defense” planners imagine potential threats everywhere. These go beyond invisible “terrorists” or recalcitrant “rogues.” From now on, the United States fears the very potential of anybody, anywhere, to have the capability to pose any sort of threat. The Pentagon has undertaken to “shift the basis of defense planning from a ‘threat-based’ model that has dominated thinking in the past to a ‘capabilities-based’ model for the future.” The question is not who might be an adversary, but what anybody might be able to do. In short, any country with the capability to be an adversary could be one, and so the strategy requires preventing any country from having the capability.

Meanwhile, the United States will spend upwards of $500 billion a year to develop every possible “capability” of its own. A few direct quotes from this remarkable document give the tone:

  • Although the United States will not face a peer competitor in the near future, the potential exists for regional powers to develop sufficient capabilities to threaten stability in regions critical to U.S. interests.
  • US forces must maintain the capability at the direction of the President to impose the will of the United States and its coalition partners on any adversaries, including states or non-state entities.
  • Such a decisive defeat could include changing the regime of an adversary state or occupation of foreign territory until U.S. strategic objectives are met.
  • For the United States, the revolution in military affairs holds the potential to confer enormous advantages and to extend the current period of U.S. military superiority.
  • A reorientation of the posture must take account of new challenges, particularly anti-access and area-denial threats. New combinations of immediately employable forward stationed and deployed forces; globally available reconnaissance, strike, and command and control assets; information operations capabilities; and rapidly deployable, highly lethal and sustainable forces that may come from outside a theater of operations have the potential to be a significant force multiplier for forward stationed forces, including forcible entry forces.

It is hard to see what “forcible entry forces” would be doing against “anti-access and area denial threats” other than invading foreign countries. Here is the bottom line to “globalization”, and it signifies world economic domination enforced by military means.

Power has its own momentum. Whatever the declared motives, the war against Yugoslavia served as an exercise in the destruction of a country. The pretext is flexible: harboring terrorists, building weapons of mass destruction, or “humanitarian catastrophe”—all can be used to justify bombing as part of an unfolding strategy of global control.

With its military supremacy demonstrated, the United States shows signs of leaving its NATO allies on the sidelines as it pursues unilateral action in the rest of the world. The proclaimed intention to destroy an expandable list of designated enemies is causing growing alarm in the world at large, and even among European leaders.

Should the tough unilateralist approach of the second Bush presidency cause serious disaffection among allies, U.S. leaders have the option of returning to the soft approach of “humanitarian war” that proved so successful in silencing critics and rallying support. To keep that option open, the partners in crime must continue to impose their own mythical version of the 1999 NATO crusade. The fiction must be told and retold of rescuing innocent victims from wicked villains. But the story is not over and there is more truth to tell.

Diana Johnstone, Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, Postscript: Perpetual War, (New York: Monthly Review Press, London: Pluto Press, 2002), 265-269


Also recommended

Michael Parenti, To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (Verso, 2002)


[1] Memorial message for the victims of Jasenovac, April 22, 2021 (video 5 minutes).

[2] Dennis Riches, “The Yugoslavia Counter-Narrative in 1993: Sean Gervasi, a neglected expert, spoke out in the early years of the catastrophe,” (video and transcript), November 18, 2018.

[3] Dennis Riches, “Pierre-Marie Gallois on the Origins of and Responsibility for the Yugoslav Wars (1990-99),”  July 29, 2018. (Video of the interview, in French).

[4]NATO war crimes/Kosovo,” Better World Info, accessed December 29, 2022.

[5] Dennis Riches, “Military Humanism: Heart of Neoliberal Darkness in the Balkans” (transcript of Interview with Noam Chomsky), February 18, 2017. See also: Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (Pluto Press, 1999).

[6] Dennis Riches, “Pierre-Marie Gallois on the Origins of and Responsibility for the Yugoslav Wars (1990-99),”  July 29, 2018. (Video of the interview, in French).