World

STILL UP IN THE AIR

NATO rebuffs ground troops for Kosovo

BRUCE WALLACE May 3 1999
World

STILL UP IN THE AIR

NATO rebuffs ground troops for Kosovo

BRUCE WALLACE May 3 1999

STILL UP IN THE AIR

World

NATO rebuffs ground troops for Kosovo

After a month of dropping bombs from high elevations and firing long-range cruise missiles from the safety of ships in the Adriatic Sea, NATO’s air war over Yugoslavia seemed to be getting more up-close and personal last week. Six U.S. army Apache helicopters arrived in neighbouring Albania, the first wave of what will be a 24-chopper task force of the lethal tank-killers. Each Apache brandishes 16 Hellfire missiles, 70-mm rockets and a cannon that fires 625 rounds per minute, but the significance of their arrival was greater than the extra firepower they bring to airspace already bristling with formidable weapons. The Apaches operate close to the ground, which increases their killing efficiency but also puts their pilots in greater danger of being shot down. By bringing in the gunships, NATO signalled that driving Serbian forces out of Kosovo was no longer a low-risk venture. “The Serbs have been successful in defeating unarmed women and children,” 29-year-old Capt. Mark Arden said from the ramshackle airport in Tirana, Albania, where the Apaches landed. But the gunships would turn the tables, he predicted, warning that they were “the tip of the spear of the entire United States army.”

The odds remain long on whether the rest of the spear will follow the Apaches into battle. NATO leaders, meeting in Washington for a 50th anniversary summit last weekend, pledged to “intensify” the air war and considered imposing a naval blockade to enforce their ban on fuel sales to Yugoslavia. But the alliance gingerly dodged a divisive public discussion on whether to introduce ground troops into their arsenal, settling instead for sharpening their air attacks. One precision strike sent missiles streaking into Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s elegant but uninhabited mansion in a posh Belgrade neighbourhood, an act the Serbs called an assassination attempt. Another pounded Serbia’s state television station, killing at least 10 people, the Serbs said, and knocking broadcasts off the air for a few hours. Going after the heart of the Serbian state was the alliance’s riposte to the growing chorus of critics contending air strikes alone will never be enough to defeat Milosevic. But the military decision to broaden the targets unsettled even some NATO leaders.

Mindful of the strain every escalation of the war puts on their unity, NATO sought to muffle the drumbeat for ground troops. In the days before the summit, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had tried to prod the alliance towards using greater force. While NATO has pledged to put troops into Kosovo only as peacekeepers, Blair argued loudly that the alliance should be willing to go into Kosovo, provided air strikes had suitably weakened Serbian resistance.

But most NATO members still range from leery to alarmed by the prospect of ground troops. Greece, whose co-operation would likely be needed for staging any invasion, is adamantly opposed, as are the Italians, who have struggled to hold their coalition government together over the air campaign alone. Most importantly, U.S. Presi-

dent Bill Clinton remains unconvinced, even though his decision to rule out a ground invasion from the start has been derided as a strategic mistake. At the summit, NATO agreed to update its assessment of how a ground attack might be carried out. But the leaders chose—publicly at least—to stick to the air campaign for now. “The debate about ground troops is off the table,” said German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Nor did the leaders show enthusiasm for a diplomatic solution proposed by former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. As Russia’s special envoy, Chernomyrdin met with Milosevic in Belgrade and claimed the Yugoslav president was now prepared to allow an “international presence” into Kosovo. That was too vaguely defined for NATO, which insists its troops “form the core” of whatever force enters Kosovo after a Serbian withdrawal.

NATO is keen, however, to keep Moscow involved in the search for a solution. Russian leaders have chafed from the wings, mixing apocalyptic warnings to the Western alliance against using ground troops with taunts about its failure to impose its will on Milosevic. “Militarily, the operation is a complete fiasco,” chortled Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. There was now a consensus at NATO, as one official in Brussels put it, to make Russia “part of the answer.” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was among those pushing for a wider Russian role, particularly as the options over Kosovo seemed to shrink to a choice between months of bombing, with ghastly accompanying images, or the leap to a ground war with its own singular perils. He proposed sending Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy to Moscow this week, to encourage Russian co-operation. But senior Liberals also noted a growing “sense of inevitability” about the need for a ground war, and Chrétien pledged Canada would meet any NATO request for troops, saying: “We will not be the ones to not be members of the team.” That approach—to follow, not lead, on ground action—is appropriate for the leader of such a small NATO contributor, his advisers explained, given that “everyone knows the majority of troops in any force will be American, British and French.” And those three show no sign yet of bended will.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington

WILLIAM LOWTHER

BRUCE WALLACE