Text Browser Navigation Bar: Main Site Navigation and Search | Current Page Navigation | Current Page Content

U.S. Army War College >> Strategic Studies Institute >> Publications >> Yugoslavia's Wars: The Problem from Hell >> Summary

Login to "My SSI" Contact

Yugoslavia's Wars: The Problem from Hell

Edited by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | October 1995

Share | |   Print   Email


By the summer of 1995 it appeared possible that the wars in the former Yugoslavia had reached a climactic point. During that summer Croatia's army revealed itself as a professional, competent force and recaptured the Krajina territory lost to Serbia in 1991. Though this campaign led to thousands of Serb refugees, neither the UN nor the West did anything and, indeed, it was clear that this offensive enjoyed tacit Western support. In August 1995, immediately following this campaign, the United States launched its own diplomatic offensive that combined its political standing, Croatia's military prowess, and NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb positions due to Serb shelling of Sarajevo and other safe havens. While the outline of an accord was signed in Geneva on September 8, 1995, stating that Bosnia would be a state within its internationally recognized borders and would contain a Serbian entity (Respublika Srpska) that could have ties abroad, the bombing continued as the Bosnian Serb military leadership refused to bow to NATO demands for withdrawal of its artillery from the exclusion zone around Sarajevo.

Thus, although a peace accord, or the outline of one exists, the wars are hardly over and most, if not all, political issues, remain to be settled. This most recent turn of events, described above, reflects the fact that already by June 1995 United States and its allies stood at a dangerous fork in the road in confronting the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The truce negotiated in December 1994 never was really effective and by April it had broken down totally. In May, Croatia launched a new offensive to regain Serbian-inhabited territories lost when Serbia invaded in 1991. By doing this Zagreb further exposed the inadequacy of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), the UN mission in Yugoslavia, as a force for peacekeeping.

Since Croatia, Bosnia, and the Bosnian Serbs were all willing to go on fighting because they believed that they had more to gain from war than they did from any negotiation, these events made the position of the UN's forces even more precarious. These events, by June, had led to increased shelling by both sides in the vicinity of Sarajevo and other major Bosnian cities. These truce violations further dramatized the helplessness of the UN's forces and once again revealed that they were ultimately hostages to the belligerents' intentions. When General Rupert Smith of the United Kingdom, UNPROFOR's CINC, called for NATO air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs on May 25-26, 1995, the Serbs retaliated by making hostages out of the UN soldiers. Thus, for the second time, UNPROFOR found itself in danger of exposure asan ineffective military force. Worse yet, until the Croatian Army swung into action, it seemed as if the Bosnian Serbs would be able to go on defying the world, seizing cities, conducting massacres and ethnic cleansing, and so on with impunity.

As this chronicle of events through the summer of 1995 shows, apart from the consequences to the UN, the consequences for the West have been enormous. NATO and the European Union have, until now, shown themselves unable to devise any workable responses to the crisis, leading many to doubt their competence or relevance in dealing with future European crises. After meetings in the Hague on May 29-30, 1995, the only response was to send more troops, and to concentrate UNPROFOR in fewer towns. Ultimately, the cities which UNPROFOR leaves will be abandoned to the fates of war, and the probable result will be a partition of Bosnia by default. Meanwhile, the members of these organizations who have troops in Yugoslavia, mainly France and Great Britain, ever more insistently demand that unless the fighting is terminated, or the UN mandate and response toughened up, they will remove their troops. Because these are NATO allies, the United States has promised to take the lead in providing up to 25,000 troops in a much larger NATO force (the exact number remains to be determined) to undertake an extrication of UNPROFOR from Yugoslavia. Since such an operation will, at best, take several months, the Clinton administration faces the prospect of a prolonged military operation. At present this operation has no discernible political goal and will take place against the opposition of Bosnia, and perhaps the other belligerents (who do not want to lose their hostages and risk NATO's direct attacks). Should the new Jacques Chirac regime in France and the British Government decide to withdraw, the United States may then be challenged to live up to its commitment to use force on behalf of its allies.

These considerations perhaps explain the timing of the U.S. diplomatic intervention and the Croatian offensive. Without such actions, and NATO's takeover of the campaign from the UN, Serb humiliation and defiance of the world community would probably have taken stronger forms. As it was, in the summer of 1995, the Bosnian Serbs had demanded a pledge of no more NATO air strikes, intensified their shelling of cities, and conducted massacres of those captured in these cities. They also enjoyed the protection of Russia, who had refused to allow the Contact Group of the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain and itself to use violence against the Serbs, forcing a temporizing response. Both the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbian government in Belgrade had also refused to accept a political solution drafted by the Western powers that would recognize Bosnia in return for a gradual end to UN sanctions. In other words, while fighting escalated and the number of belligerents could easily widen, the United States and NATO had not gotten closer to a true political solution. Thus anyfurther intervention could well trigger a pan-European crisis by increasing the tensions already inherent between Russia, Serbia's patron, and the involved Western forces. At the same time, failure to arrive at a Western political consensus over objectives was continuing to erode the cohesion of the alliance.

Many of these dilemmas were already visible in late 1994 when it was clear that the belligerents still saw war as their best alternative and had good reason not to accept proposals brokered by the West or the Contact Group. For this reason, the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College convened a roundtable in Washington, DC, on January 30, 1995, to examine all the aspects of these wars and their likely developments.

The complexity and intractability of these wars, with their multiple intransigent combatants and issues, have stymied efforts at a resolution and led Secretary of State Warren Christopher to call Yugoslavia "the problem from hell." That complexity obliged SSI to try to provide a synoptic view of the many ramifications of these wars so that our audience could gain a broader appreciation of the issues at stake and the magnitude of the repercussions of any further decisive action. Accordingly, the scholars at the roundtable analyzed the problem from military, political, and diplomatic perspectives, and speculated on its implications for European security.

The sequence of the papers presented here follows this outline and suggests how difficult it has been and will be to bring these wars to termination. These difficulties do not by any means exhaust all the problems, real and potential, that have emerged in the wake of the breakup of the former Yugoslav state. Thus it proved impossible to provide a detailed examination of the Macedonian and Albanian issues that are themselves microcosms of these ongoing wars. This work is by no means definitive. Nevertheless, we hope it will be useful to our readers in helping understand the importance of the issues, the problems raised by these wars, and the urgency of finding a way to terminate the suffering before these conflagrations expand geographically.


The U.S. initiatives of the summer of 1995 reflected the broader understanding that time is running out in Yugoslavia's wars. We no longer could pretend that we could keep flailing around with no coherent policy or military strategy for the Balkans or simply allow aggression to win and expect no ensuing consequences. Nor can we allow NATO to degenerate even as we extend its protective umbrella to countries we have not been and maybe are not prepared to defend. Insulation has failed and we must now pay for that failure, namely a protracted involvement in the Balkans and possible East-West stalemate due to the failure of Russia to find a way to participate in the peace process.

Strong, continuous, presidential leadership is a sine qua non of any solution involving U.S. presence in the Balkans and averting further conflict. Fortunately we now are acting if we are ready to engage in the difficult process needed to bring about peace. But time works for us or against us depending on how we use it. If we continue to follow the strategic void that characterized all policies from 1990 until now, time will work against us and our allies because we have had no idea what objectives to pursue or defend. Alternatively, if we act now, with clear goals in mind we can reverse that trend over a long term but not cheaply. However, if that strategic void remains the outcome of present policy, then this "problem from hell" will be a minor challenge compared to the burdens that will then be thrust upon us.