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Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 19:20 GMT

Analysis: Why Milosevic is defying Nato

An F16 jet ready for action: Nato has over 400 aircraft at its disposal

By Jonathan Eyal

Kosovo: Special Report
According to the received wisdom, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia is simply obstinate and irrational.

In fact, there is a great deal of rationale in the Yugoslav ruler's behaviour.

For, as seen from Belgrade, defying the West and taking a calculated risk on air strikes makes perfect sense.

[ image:  ]
President Milosevic realised long ago that he was bound to lose Kosovo. Although the Western peace plan negotiated in France this February and still the main policy for all European states now calls merely for the creation of an autonomous province, the Yugoslav president knows that, once peacekeepers are introduced into the area and free elections took place, no Western government would return the territory to his tender mercies.

Choosing to fight

Milosevic knows too that if he confronts the West he will also lose Kosovo. So, his choice was between losing the province peacefully, or losing it as a result of a war.

[ image: Slobodan Milosevic: Irrational or master strategist?]
Slobodan Milosevic: Irrational or master strategist?
Predictably, he chose to fight, in the hope that his determination will never be matched by that of the West and that, at the very worst, he may lose only part of the province.

His strategy in the coming days is also clear enough.

In the first phases of air attacks, he will do nothing. The Yugoslav air force will be kept in reserve and every effort will be made to preserve as many military assets as possible. Milosevic will be hoping that Nato's resolve will be shattered - after all, establishing a consensus within the Alliance on air strikes was never easy - or that Russian pressure will persuade the West to desist.

At the same time, a massive ground offensive will be launched against the Albanians, sustained by the estimated 36,000 Yugoslav troops already stationed there.

[ image:  ]
Nato planes will seek to target these forces but, at least in the initial stage of air attacks, the Alliance will be concerned more with eliminating other targets in Yugoslavia itself. Western aircraft are not going to go into action above Kosovo until and unless they are sure to meet no opposition from the Yugoslav air defences.

So, there will be a lag of a few days before Nato can target Yugoslavia's troops on the ground. The result will be a huge wave of refugees streaming out of Kosovo. The West is justifying the operation as necessary in order to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

In fact, the biggest humanitarian disaster will unfold when the air attacks start.

Belgrade's Kosovo objectives

In sustaining his ground offensive in Kosovo, Milosevic will be seeking two objectives:

[ image: The area which has been targeted by Serb forces]
The area which has been targeted by Serb forces
He knows that no Western government wants to send troops into the province - any operation designed to liberate Kosovo probably requires over 100,000 troops and will produce casualties which no country is currently prepared to contemplate. But the sight of refugees and repeated massacres will force the West into a straight choice between escalating its involvement, or abandoning the air strikes.

Secondly, Milosevic is also preparing for the division of the province. All the latest Yugoslav attacks have been in the northern part of Kosovo, the region which the Serbs wish to hold on to at all costs.

Once this area is ethnically "cleansed", Milosevic could stop the attacks and even return to the negotiating table. The air strikes will stop, Kosovo will be divided, and Western forces will be invited to take over the remaining rump of the province, complete with all its refugees.

In a curious twist, therefore, Western troops are now destined to get into Kosovo. The only question is whether they will have to fight their way, or whether they would enter after most of the fighting is already over.

'The cost will be huge'

Milosevic may therefore still survive this current confrontation. But the cost to his country will be huge.

[ image:  ]
Yugoslavia represents a classic example of what can go wrong in the process of transition from a communist controlled society.

The Yugoslav war, for which President Slobodan Milosevic bears heavy responsibility, served only to perpetuate a disguised communist rule and postpone serious decisions about the very nature of the Serbian state.

Milosevic began the war in the name of Serbian unity and ethnic purity. Yet Serbs are still divided, many have been forcefully removed, and Serbia itself still contains the highest number of ethnic minorities among all the republics of the former Yugoslavia.

Having been the most integrated Eastern European state before 1989, rump Yugoslavia is now a pariah country in Europe.

And, to complete this cycle of tragedies, the Yugoslavia which Milosevic invented after 1991 remains a rickety affair.

Milosevic has failed in his nationalist dreams, but he appears to have succeeded in destroying his country's civic society.

Ten years ago the Serbs were in the forefront of all communist states, at least in terms of political culture. Today, they are at the bottom of the pile, with no salvation in sight: the opposition political parties remain divided and hardly represent an alternative power base.

Almost regardless of how the current Kosovo crisis is resolved, the people of Yugoslavia will remain the ultimate losers.

Jonathan Eyal The Author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

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