Nato's Game Of Chicken

It was billed as the biggest, bloodiest strike of the war. On June 7, U.S. B-52s dropped several cluster bombs on Yugoslav forces at Mount Pastrik, a strategic battlefield on the Kosovo-Albanian border. The assault, one of the final salvos in a 78-day campaign in which 37,200 air sorties had hammered Yugoslavia, came as Slobodan Milosevic seemed to be stalling on a peace pact he had signed a few days before. At the time, NATO claimed that several hundred Serb soldiers were slaughtered on Mount Pastrik as Milosevic's forces massed to fend off the attacking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The raid on the mountain was said to be the final blow to the tottering Serb tyrant; two days later he directed his generals to comply with the alliance's schedule for a Serb withdrawal from Kosovo. The world was left with the image of NATO's overwhelming might, of a dictator and his army quaking--and suffering thousands of casualties during the war, compared with none for NATO forces. Washington began dropping hints of a new geopolitical formulation, a "Clinton Doctrine," that would send a message to tyrants and abusers of human rights everywhere: watch out!

But today, more than a month later, a very different view is emerging--of the Mount Pastrik battle and NATO's overall victory. Even as Milosevic struggles for his political life in Belgrade, mounting evidence suggests that his defeat wasn't close to the drubbing it once seemed. A NEWSWEEK reconstruction of the final weeks of the conflict shows that the Serb leader's surrender was an unnervingly close call, and was hardly the historic victory for air power that it was claimed to be. In fact, by the first week in June--the week Milosevic finally folded--President Clinton was on the brink of a momentous decision to prepare for a ground invasion. It was a decision he shrank from, not only because an invasion would be bloody, but because even discussing the topic would have divided Congress and NATO. That's why NATO's overwhelming mood these days remains one of relief rather than pride. If Milosevic had hung on for a couple more weeks, we could have been in trouble," a senior U.S. military official said last week.

Indeed, it is far from clear that the Yugoslav Army was ever defeated on the battlefield--starting with Mount Pastrik. NEWSWEEK interviews with survivors and KLA officials suggest that relatively few Serb soldiers died there. Hundreds of them crawled out of tunnels and bunkers after the bombing; they had evidently been forewarned by flares dropped by NATO A-10 Warthogs to mark the target. Or perhaps they benefited from a problem that plagued NATO throughout the war--"non-secure radio transmissions between aircraft," as NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark put it in an interview. According to Miroslav Lazansky, a usually reliable Belgrade military analyst, Serb soldiers on Mount Pastrik suffered only head concussions. Farfetched? Maybe, except that Lazansky is, for the most part, backed up by KLA troops who fought the Yugoslavs on the mountain. "There may have been an incident involving several hundred dead," said Ibrahim Carri, a KLA commander and former Yugoslav Army captain who saw action on Mount Pastrik. "But I didn't see it, nor did any of my men." A rebel scout who was the first into the impact zone after the raid said that he didn't see a single dead Serb or even blood. Back in Washington, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told NEWSWEEK that the raid killed "a lot of KLA fighters, maybe more than Serbs."

NATO and the Pentagon have begun a similar reassessment of the overall campaign. Despite raining a high-tech assortment of laser-guided and satellite-navigated bombs on Serbia and Kosovo, NATO officials were astonished to see many Serb tanks and healthy-looking troops roar out of the province after NATO peacekeepers went in. It appears that NATO bombers, flying at 15,000 feet, were often fooled by decoy tanks made from "tetra-pak" milk-carton material, or wood-burning stoves with the chimneys angled to make them look like guns. Clark, for the record, maintains that NATO was hardly fooled by the decoys and did a lot of damage--he told NEWSWEEK on July 12 that NATO had "confirmed" hits on 110 tanks, 210 armored fighting vehicles and 449 pieces of artillery and mortars.

Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure did take a severe hit. According to G-17, an independent Belgrade-based economic think tank, 60 percent of Serbia's electrical transformers are out of action. But U.S. officials now believe Milosevic is able to repair all the damage without outside aid before winter.

So, if Milosevic's army survived the war more or less intact, why did he cave in? Because in the end, rather than a military victory in Kosovo, NATO seems to have won a giant game of chicken. Dozens of interviews with NATO and Russian officials suggest the conflict's endgame was to a large extent a diplomatic war of nerves. Milosevic, with Russian help, came to believe that NATO planned an imminent ground invasion--even though the alliance was at least months away from launching such an attack. Clark himself concedes that diplomacy may have turned the tide. "This was never just [about] force," Clark said, though he added, "Nothing would have worked without force."

No one may ever know for sure what finally pushed Milosevic over the edge. The notoriously reclusive Serb leader rarely gives interviews. But senior U.S. officials now believe Milosevic made a cold calculation in early June about his own political survival. One of his original purposes in going to war--destroying the KLA--wasn't going to work with NATO around; and NATO, which he had once hoped to divide, wasn't going to quit any time soon. He may have concluded that if he surrendered Kosovo at that moment, his regime could survive the anger of his people, and rebuild shattered power plants by the harsh Balkan winter. "I don't believe Milosevic caved because of the damage he suffered," one senior U.S. official said. "I think he caved because he knew the damage he faced ahead would bring him down."

The critical factor may have been Russia's decision to take sides with NATO against him. This was an irony for Washington, which at the outset had sought to keep Moscow, Milosevic's Slav ally, merely quiet and on the sidelines. "The biggest early mistake of the West was isolating Russia. Milosevic got the message at that point he was not completely alone," says Panayotis Vlassopolous, the Greek ambassador to Belgrade. But in early May, as the war dragged on, Washington's strategy changed. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began courting Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Her deputy, Strobe Talbott, undertook exhausting weeks of shuttle diplomacy with Russian President Boris Yeltsin's special Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin. In the end it was Chernomyrdin, with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who delivered NATO's ultimatum to Milosevic in Belgrade. Why did Russia move to NATO's side? NEWSWEEK has learned that Moscow, too, came to believe that NATO was preparing to invade.

Ivanov himself, in an interview, suggested as much. By late May, the foreign minister said, "We had reliable information that preparation for a ground operation was in full swing." Talbott, knowing the Russians were talking regularly with Milosevic, did not discourage the belief--though according to Clark, "there were no plans made" for a ground invasion at this point in the war. The perceived threat of a ground attack had a dual effect. It persuaded the Russians, for their own ends, to seek a quick end to the war--they were deathly afraid of worsened relations with the West. And it convinced them to urge Milosevic to settle. "We told [Milosevic] he needed to take [a ground attack] seriously," says another Russian source. He may have, especially as NATO began pouring in the troops that it intended to use for peacekeeping to border regions in late May. Milosevic "saw troops in Albania and he saw troops in Macedonia. And he 'knew' what was going to happen," said Clark. In fact, by early June all that NATO troops were doing was repairing the roads that would eventually carry peacekeepers into Kosovo. But "Slobo didn't know the difference, and could only assume we were going to invade," says a member of the Joint Chiefs.

But the threat of a ground war wasn't a bluff. Clark himself had always wanted that option open, and, says one of his closest associates, had "lost confidence in the air campaign even before the NATO [50th anniversary] summit" on April 24. On May 5, Gen. Klaus Naumann, the head of NATO's military committee, laid out two options in a top-secret session of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body. One, an invasion of Kosovo, would have required 75,000-plus combat troops and tens of thousands more for support. The second option, an invasion of Yugoslavia as a whole, called for 175,000 troops. Many more would be needed for support.

Back in Washington, the Joint Chiefs dismissed the Kosovo invasion plan as overly optimistic. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration, led by national-security adviser Sandy Berger, was still fearful of "the horror a ground war could entail," said a senior official. In a briefing, Clark did not gloss over the dangers. He compared an invasion to the Korean War--there was "talk of fighting ridge by ridge," with numerous U.S. casualties. As a result, the Joint Chiefs and even Naumann-- but not Clark--came to think that pressing on with the air campaign was the only realistic option. But Clinton's top civilian advisers were in a bind. They believed that NATO allies would not have the will to bomb indefinitely while thousands of internally displaced refugees in Kosovo starved or froze as winter set in. The Joint Chiefs were warning that a ground invasion before winter would require a decision by early June. And the White House had come to realize that NATO couldn't afford to lose this war. "At this point the president and his cabinet and all the [alliance] leaders had realized their entire careers depended on Milosevic capitulating," says a senior U.S. official. So on May 27 Defense Secretary William Cohen, once the most passionate opponent of ground troops, flew secretly to Bonn, Germany, to meet his counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy and discuss an invasion. All but the Germans were ready to sign on. Yet Clinton still needed to press the button. On June 2, his senior advisers met in the White House to lay out the options for a decision within days. But the next day, Milosevic conceded.

Why? Fortunately for NATO, Milosevic's regime was also far from monolithic. From the second week of May, the Serb leader's inner circle started to break into pro-war and antiwar camps, a source close to the Yugoslav federal government tells NEWSWEEK. The antiwar camp realized Milosevic was determined to fight on when he wasn't fazed even after NATO hit his residence. So they turned to his influential wife and closest confidante, Mirjana Markovic. She was heavily lobbied by Milosevic's inner circle. "It gained momentum as the war continued," says the Belgrade source. "I can't pinpoint an exact moment when Milosevic finally listened, but there was tremendous pressure from all sides: the West, the inner circle and his wife. It was building up, and eventually he just let go."

One reason for all the lobbying by Milosevic's intimates may have been some unreported tactical moves by NATO. There was, it seems, a secret campaign of psychological coercion called Matrix, which was run by U.S. Balkans envoy Robert Gelbard. Matrix targeted Milosevic's industrialist cronies by calling in or faxing warnings that their factories would be bombed within 24 hours. A source familiar with the operation says the Yugoslavs at the other end of the line were often unnerved, responding with such comments as, "How did you find me?" (Matrix seems to have been run without Clark's knowledge. "I never heard of it," the NATO commander told NEWSWEEK. "If I had, I would have stopped it.") Another Matrix ploy was to harass Milosevic cronies by denying them visas to travel.

If Milosevic is ousted--more protests were planned in Belgrade over the weekend--NATO's strategy in Kosovo may one day look brilliant. But for many inside the alliance, NATO came far too close to a potentially bloody ground campaign to make Kosovo look like a precedent. By the time Milosevic gave in, a fight over a small province in southeastern Europe had, somehow, put the reputation of the mightiest alliance in history on the line. At the White House, NEWSWEEK has learned, a presidential speech intended to outline that "Clinton Doctrine" for humanitarian intervention has been delayed. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, asked during a breakfast with reporters about U.S. hopes for using NATO as an expeditionary force in the future, said, "Well, we'll have to rethink that, won't we?" So, too, will the rest of us.

This story was reported byin Belgrade and Pristinaandin Washingtonin Brusselsin Moscowin London andin BerlinIt was written by