Russia has issued a warning against a repeat of the NATO Western military alliance’s bombing campaign of Yugoslavia on its 22nd anniversary, as Washington’s top diplomat seeks to rally the alliance for the first time under the banner of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
“Such evil, as NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia, must never be repeated,” Moscow’s embassy in Belgrade, then the Yugoslav capital and today the capital of Serbia, said in a statement Wednesday in reference to the 1999 NATO attack on the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The statement argued that the attack violated “the basic principles of international law established in the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and other international documents.”
The air campaign was launched in response to accusations that Yugoslav security forces had conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Albanians in the fight against the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army. Both Russia and China used their permanent United Nations Security Council member privileges to veto international action, arguing a need for peaceful settlement rather than the use of force.
NATO went ahead anyway, with Moscow protesting to this day.
“During the 78 days of the barbaric bombing, which was cynically portrayed as a ‘humanitarian intervention in the name of rescuing refugees,’ about two thousand civilians were killed,” the embassy said. “A significant part of the country’s infrastructural and industrial capacity was destroyed. Thousands of civilian buildings were destroyed. The use of depleted uranium ammunition has led to irreversible contamination in a number of land and groundwater regions.”
New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch placed the number of Yugoslav civilians killed at around 500, though local authorities at the time placed the figure closer to the Russian estimate.
Included in the collateral damage of the campaign was China’s embassy in Belgrade, where U.S. bombs killed at least three Chinese nationals and injured over two dozen more.
The statement also complained of “enormous damage” not only to physical infrastructure but also “to the architecture of peace and security in Europe and to international stability.”
The bombing, Russia argued, paved the way for further interventions across the globe, including “a whole series of Western operations with the implementation of the forces initiated under propagandist pronunciation, without the approval of the UN Security Council or with the perverted interpretation of the mandate assigned by the UNSC.”
“Russia will continue to resolutely advocate strict adherence to universal international legal norms, such as the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states,” the embassy said. “In that context, we will support all efforts that will contribute to Belgrade and Pristina achieving a sustainable and mutually acceptable solution that meets the interests of the people of Serbia and international law.”
In a tweet, Russian permanent representative to the United Nations Mikhail Ulyanov called then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s decision to cancel high-level talks in the U.S. over the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia “the first real and truly resonant step towards a U-turn of Russian foreign policy towards the protection of the civilized world order based on international law and the national interests of Russia.”
To mark a decade since the NATO bombing of Libya, the Russian embassy in Washington recently accused the alliance of wrongly pursuing regime change against longtime Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi “to the most devastating consequences” in remarks recently shared with Newsweek.
Amid tense ties with NATO today, Konstantin Gavrilov, the head of the Russian delegation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control, criticized what he called NATO’s “policy of ‘containment of the Russian Federation” during a Wednesday meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Forum for Security Cooperation. Such an approach, he argued, was “counterproductive and only weakens stability in Europe.”
He called on NATO to choose between “either containment or dialogue with our country.”
But that same day, the alliance was hosting a high-profile guest for the first time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who told reporters he “had a lengthy discussion about Russia” with his counterparts.
“I think we all expect our relationship with Russia to remain a challenge into the foreseeable future, but it’s one that we’re prepared for,” Blinken said. “And ultimately, I think what we can hope is to have a relationship with Russia that is at least predictable and stable, and so given that, our intent is to engage Russia in ways that advance our interests while remaining very clear-eyed about the challenges that it poses.”
He later named some specific areas of contention between Washington and Moscow, warning of “new military capabilities and strategies Russia has developed to challenge our alliances and undermine the rules-based order that ensures our collective security.”
“These include Moscow’s aggression in eastern Ukraine, its build-up of forces, large-scale exercises, and acts of intimidation in the Baltic and Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the High North, its modernization of nuclear capabilities, and its use of chemical weapons against critics on NATO soil,” Blinken said.
He also accused Russia of using “disinformation to erode confidence in elections and in safe, effective vaccines.”
The Biden administration has sought to reinvigorate U.S.-NATO ties that were strained under former President Donald Trump, and has lashed out at Russian President Vladimir Putin, agreeing that he is “a killer” and warning he would “pay a price” for allegedly interfering in the 2020 U.S. election.
Putin provided an unusual answer.
“As for the statements of my American colleague, how would I respond to him?” Putin asked rhetorically. “I would say to him: ‘Be healthy!’ I wish him good health.”
He then warned, “Whatever you call me is what you are called yourself,” and recounted a selective history of the United States, including mass killings of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans and the use of nuclear weapons in combat. Putin himself is accused of orchestrating the killing of dissidents, as well as the attempted poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Biden’s comments have spurred outrage in Moscow, where Putin has challenged Biden to a live discussion, an offer that has yet to be accepted.
White House national security adviser told MSNBC on Monday he expected “to have tough days with Russia, because there are issues on which we profoundly disagree and actions we need to respond to forcefully.”
His Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev said Wednesday that such comments indicated that Washington was seeking and planning for such an outcome.
“And if they are planning that, they can implement that, but then they will be responsible for the steps that they would take,” Patrushev said, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.
He left the door open for cooperation, however.
“We are committed to constructive cooperation that would take into account the interests of each of the parties and that would be equal,” he said. “Let me emphasize that we haven’t taken any hostile steps against the United States, we are not taking any now, nor are we planning to take any in the future.”