"I will *not* start World War Three for you."
August 31, 2019 4:24 PM   Subscribe

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. — by Metafilter's own garius
posted by Major Clanger (17 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
 
I remember following the Russians invading the airport story at the time and being fairly freaked out. Interesting to know that I had good reason to be. Thanks for the link.

The story is bittersweet. I don't think The Russia of today would roll over so easily (c.f. Syria), nor would NATO units refuse orders from the US on moral grounds like they did in the story (assuming coalitions are even a thing anymore). I think we're in more dangerous times than the 90s.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:39 PM on August 31 [8 favorites]


The broad strokes version of this story comes around time and again with differing levels of detail, focus or modern context. I remember most of the names and the situation (as seen on TV) from the time. The whole piece is definitely a good read. Cheers for linking!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 6:17 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Wow. This story just gave me a tiny bit of hope for humanity. I'm glad General Jackson did not resign.
posted by M. at 11:21 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


nor would NATO units refuse orders from the US on moral grounds like they did in the story

I'm not so sure. There's not a lot of love for the US CIC these days in NATO's non-American forces, thanks to how little respect has been shown to America's allies and the institution of NATO itself. If ridiculous orders were issued by an American in charge, I think you'd find a lot of NATO radios suddenly experiencing technical difficulties.
posted by dazed_one at 12:04 AM on September 1 [18 favorites]


The story is bittersweet. I don't think The Russia of today would roll over so easily (c.f. Syria)

The Russian approach to their interventions in both Syria and, before that, Georgia makes infinitely more sense when you understand what happened at Pristina.

At Pristina, they learned that you need local logistics and regional political support, otherwise you'll fail. I'm not saying that it shaped national policy directly, but it taught the members of that post-Yeltsin cadre a personal lesson in how not to do things, and the weakness of Russian soft power at that time.

And one of the key members of that cadre was Vladimir Putin. Putin's whole personal approach to international politics makes a lot more sense when you remember he suffered a major international humiliation over Kosovo. Just, luckily for him, one that stuck to Yeltsin, not to the post-Yeltsin cadre that was actually in charge by that point.

That was partly why I remember wanting to write this piece at the time I did. That and to try and get something factual down on record about what actually happened, as the myth of 'James Blunt stopping WW3' has continued to grow in the telling. He did, in a way, but it wasn't him personally, it was the training and culture of the British officer corps that collectively combined to stop it - which is what officer training is meant to do. It's not just there to help you manage down. It's meant to teach you how, and when, to manage up, too.

Anyway, I was able to have email or off the record chats with a fair few people involved at Skopje or on the ground. All were happy to confirm events and conversations - even down to exactly what was said - although nobody wanted to be directly attributed as a source.

Some quick memories and impressions from researching / writing that didn't make the final version at the time:

- Nobody had a kind word to say about Clark, even among the American staff. He was variously described as 'A Cold War relic' and most damningly 'The kind of commander who gets other people's soldiers killed'
- On multiple occasions, Clark absent-mindedly referred to the Russians in staff briefings as 'the Reds' and 'the enemy'. He also had to be quietly cautioned about referring to the German contingent of KFOR - in their commander's presence - as 'the Krauts'.
- One American staff officer told me that they joked after this that the US Army should just ban anyone called 'Clark' from being a general, because it never seemed to end well.
- Jackson 100% knew what he was doing when he persuaded Clark to modify the order to involve armour. He knew that meant only Dannatt could carry it out, and that Dannatt was smart enough to realise that it lay outside KFOR's mandate. There is no doubt in my mind about this, even though Jackson has always denied it in public.
- Jackson was right (although I didn't know it at the time of writing). The Serbian army would have blown the pass if they'd crossed early, or moved on the airport. A Serbian ground commander contacted me after coming across this piece and we had a very ...interesting conversation about his orders at the time.
- Literally everyone in KFOR was fucking terrified of the Norwegian special forces. Even the SAS. One Para commander joked to me that Jackson should have got medals from both Serbia and Russia for 'saving them from the Norwegians'.
posted by garius at 1:12 AM on September 1 [115 favorites]


- Nobody had a kind word to say about Clark, even among the American staff. He was variously described as 'A Cold War relic' and most damningly 'The kind of commander who gets other people's soldiers killed'

I know a nonzero number of American veterans who worked with/near Clark and claim that they aren’t Democrats specifically because Clark is one.
posted by Etrigan at 5:26 AM on September 1 [9 favorites]


JFC. It's like fucking catch-22.

how many near misses will we never read about? how many origin stories of wars that cost blood and treasure were because of conversations like these that didn't happen?
posted by lalochezia at 5:27 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


Literally everyone in KFOR was fucking terrified of the Norwegian special forces.

Why? More background about this, pls.
posted by cenoxo at 7:08 AM on September 1 [15 favorites]


back during the 2004 primaries i ended up for whatever reason reading wesley clark's book, which in large part centered on the events at pristina and which made no sense whatsoever. i dismissed my "huh there is something wrong with this guy" feeling and decided that it made no sense solely because of clark's ghostwriter's use of dense careful bureaucratic prose — which, well, settled across the story like an impenetrable fogbank. it is a weird relief to discover that the prosefog wasn't just a mistake, but was there to cover up for clark's aggro idiocy.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:04 AM on September 1 [7 favorites]


My father really disliked Clark too. Also was not a fan of Powell. Political generals in his opinion are always bad. He was not wrong.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:04 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Excellent Article. But "British 1st Battalion, Paratroop Regiment" should probably read "1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment" and the "1st Para" would normally just read "1 PARA".
posted by Vade101 at 8:37 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I remember that Clark ran in the 2004 primaries as an anti-war candiate. The "anti-war warrior" IIRC. Holy cats was that wrong!
posted by joedan at 9:12 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Well, he was probably anti-Iraq War, which is cool, but not necessarily anti-war in general. IIRC, one of the strategies tried against W in 2004 was to try to neutralize whatever advantage he had as a war president by emphasizing the fact that Kerry had more actual direct war experience than Bush, going over to Vietnam and getting Purple Hearts while Bush found excuses to skip Air National Guard drills. Of course, Bush's people just swift-boated Kerry mercilessly in response. God knows what they would have done to Clark if he'd gotten the nomination.

But, yeah, Clark comes across as staggeringly irresponsible here. Maybe, if he'd gotten close to the nomination, someone might have brought this up.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:57 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


jackson's play where he requested armor is in my list of "smart tactics that smart people do," and it's like right at the top of that list. that was some amazing quick thinking.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:23 AM on September 1 [9 favorites]


Great article, super journalism, amazing story. I have an inlaw who was with the peacekeeping forces going into Kosovo, I'd love to ask him what the forces on the ground were aware of.
posted by glasseyes at 10:34 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


you can imagine the childlike glee on Clark's face when he imagines his tankers storming the airport, just like Patton's tanks stormed the bridges over the Rhine.
posted by Sauce Trough at 2:58 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Listen to the general every goddamn word
How many ways can you polish up a turd
How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess
Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk

-- Tom Waits, "Hell Broke Luce" (about a different military conflict, but still sadly relevant)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:08 AM on September 6 [2 favorites]


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