Russian and NATO troops were very close to using force against each other in Kosovo, 1999. A NATO commander disobeyed the orders he was given, reportedly saying “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you” to his superior, who was later fired.
The Incident at Prishtina airport was a confrontation between the NATO forces and Russian forces over the Prishtina International Airport on 12 June 1999, in the aftermath of the Kosovo War. Russian troops occupied the airport ahead of a NATO deployment, resulting in a tense stand-off, which was resolved peacefully.
Early on 11 June 1999 a column of about thirty Russian armoured vehicles carrying some 250 Russian troops, who were part of the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia, moved into Serbia. At 10.30 am this was confirmed by SHAPE and by pictures from CNN which showed that the Russians had hastily painted KFOR in white letters on their vehicles where they had previously been SFOR. It was assumed that the column was heading for Prishtina and Prishtina International Airport ahead of the arrival of NATO troops.
Upon hearing of the deployment, American NATO commander Wesley Clark called NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, and was told “you have transfer of authority” in the area. Clark then provisionally ordered a contingent of British and French paratroopers to be flown in by helicopter to seize the airport by force. Staff officers had grave concerns that helicopters might be fired on by Serb forces and that invasion of Kosovo before the agreed time might cause the Serbs to pull out of the agreement. If the airborne force got into trouble it would have been very difficult to reach them overland through the mountainous country where bridges and tunnels were known to be prepared for demolition. As this operation would have been outside of the newly signed agreement for NATO forces to move into Kosovo the following day national governments had the right to withdraw their own forces and the French government pulled their battalion out. British paras sat by Chinook helicopters in a hot cornfield for most of the afternoon before standing down to prepare for the following day’s move into Kosovo.
The first NATO troops to enter Pristina on the 12th of June 1999 were Norwegian special forces from FSK Forsvarets Spesialkommando and soldiers from the British Special Air Service 22 S.A.S, although to NATO’s diplomatic embarrassment Russian troops arrived first at the airport. The Norwegian soldiers from FSK Forsvarets Spesialkommandowere the first to come in contact with the Russian troops at the airport and to report back to Mike Jackson At 5 am on 12 June the British 5th Airborne Brigade began flying into Kosovo from Skopje to secure the ten mile long Kacanik defile for 4th Armoured Brigade to pass through to Pristina. Jackson flew by helicopter to Prishtina in the evening to hold a press conference, then went to meet two star general Victor Zavarzin who commanded the small Russian force. Sheltering from heavy rain in the wrecked airport terminal Jackson shared a flask of whisky with him, leading to a warming of relations. That evening Clark still seemed obsessed with the possibility of more Russian troops being flown in even though NATO controlled the airspace. Russia had placed several airbases on standby, and prepared battalions of paratroopers to depart for Prishtina on Il-76 military transport planes. Fearing that Russian aircraft were heading for the airport, General Clark planned to order helicopters to block the runway, and requested American Admiral James O. Ellis for helicopter support. Jackson’s staff contacted the US Brigade and were told that the Americans were using their right to opt out of the operation. Two hours later they called back to say that the operation was back on again. Bad weather however made this impossible at that time.
The following morning, Sunday 13 June, Clark arrived at Jackson’s HQ at Skopje. It was pointed out to him that the Russians were isolated and could not be reinforced by air and that Russian support had been a vital part of getting a peace agreement. Antagonising them would only be counterproductive. Clark refused to accept this and continued to order the runway blocked, claiming to be supported by the UN Secretary General. Jackson refused to enforce Clark’s orders, reportedly telling him “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” When again directly ordered to block the runway Jackson suggested that British tanks and armoured cars would be more suitable, in the knowledge that this would almost certainly be vetoed by the British government. Clark agreed. Jackson was ready to resign rather than follow Clark’s order. The British Ministry of Defence authorised British force commander Richard Dannatt to use 4 Armoured Brigade to isolate the airfield but not to block the runways. British officer Captain James Blunt, who later found fame as a pop singer, was a troop commander of some of these vehicles. He has been quoted as saying he would rather have faced a court martial than use force against the Russians. Clark’s orders were not carried out, and the United States instead put political pressure on neighbouring states not to allow Russia to use their airspace to ferry in the reinforcements. Russia was forced to call off the reinforcements after Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania refused requests by Russia to use their airspace.
Negotiations were conducted throughout the stand-off, during which Russia insisted that its troops would only be answerable to Russian commanders, and that it retain an exclusive zone for its own peacekeepers. NATO refused, predicting that it would lead to the partition of Kosovo into an Albanian south and a Serbian north. Both sides eventually agreed that Russian peacekeepers would deploy throughout Kosovo, but independently of NATO.