Could Serbia be Preparing an Attack on Macedonia?
With no progress in Kosovo peace talks, it appears that NATO and Serbia
headed for a military showdown. However, Serbian deployments suggest that
Belgrade may have more in mind than to just follow Baghdad's example of
professional Tomahawk catching.
Unless Belgrade suddenly reverses itself, which is always
possible, the stage is now set for armed conflict between NATO
and Serbia. The expectation is that air attacks on Yugoslavia
will parallel those in Iraq. In Iraq, the United States and its
allies have largely determined the scope and tempo of air
operations. Iraq has essentially absorbed those air strikes
without launching its own military counter-operations. To be
more precise, Iraq has, on occasion, appeared to try to interfere
with air strikes using anti-aircraft systems and some air
interception, but Iraq has never tried to respond with ground
operations outside of Iraq.
It has appeared, at least publicly, to be a basic assumption in
NATO's strategy that Serbia would follow the same pattern. In
other words, it has been assumed that air attacks on Serbia would
be low-risk operations, in which the forces directly involved in
the attacks would be exposed to Serbian fire, but that no other
assets would be at risk. Thus, if NATO relied on a cruise
missile attack, deployed extensive air defense suppression
systems and used stealth aircraft, NATO's casualties and risks
would be minimal.
This assumption may well be correct, but it is not certainly
correct. We do not know how Belgrade is planning to respond to
NATO air attacks nor even if they are planning to capitulate at
the last minute. But assuming that maintaining the territorial
integrity of their country is as important to the Serbs as it is
to most countries, it is important to consider what military
cards the Belgrade has available, should it choose not to behave
like Baghdad. Let us further assume that, while Serbia has a
somewhat more sophisticated air defense system than Iraq, NATO
would have no real trouble suppressing that system, even if it
had to incur some casualties in the course of the operation.
Serbia's primary military goal would be political: to raise the
cost of anti-Serb operations higher than NATO in general and the
United States in particular would find endurable. The key to
achieving this goal is to inflict casualties and take prisoners.
A reasonable, though not certain, assumption could be made that
NATO is prepared to intervene in Kosovo if the primary cost is
money and effort, but that it is not prepared to intervene if
intervention means substantial cost in lives or prisoners. This
assumption could be taken from NATO's assertion that it would not
deploy peacekeeping forces without a prior agreement from all
sides, but would conduct an anti-Serb air campaign in the absence
of a Serbian agreement. An air campaign will leave limited
opportunities for casualties or prisoners, given heavy dependence
on cruise missiles and stealth aircraft, as well as the heavy air
defense suppression capabilities of NATO. With this NATO
calculation in mind, the Serbs might choose to respond to air
attacks against Serbia on the ground.
The situation on the ground is quite different from the situation
in the air. Consider the correlation of forces along the
Yugoslav-Macedonian border, where NATO has staged in anticipation
of deployment in Kosovo. First some geography. The Yugoslav
border is about 12 miles from Skopje, the capital of Macedonia
and the focus of NATO activity. There is a direct, multi-lane
road from the border to the city. About 2 miles southeast of
Skopje, there is the main airport, heavily used by NATO and UN
forces. An autobahn/interstate quality road runs from the
Serbian border to the airport, with lateral roads to the east and
west. A division could easily deploy along this route. There is
extensive evidence that Serbian forces, including armor, are
massing along the Pristina-Skopje road. We infer from some
reports that there is also massing along the Leskovac-Skopje
airport superhighway. There are also reports of air defense
units moving forward into the border region. It is clearly a
multi-divisional deployment including armored and mechanized
NATO, in turn, has substantial forces in the region, though
currently less than half of the 26-28,000 troops planned for
enforcing the as-yet unsigned Kosovo peace settlement. NATO
forces in Macedonia include a German armored brigade with Leopard
2s, a French Mechanized brigade, a British Infantry brigade, and
other units. In effect, there is a NATO division in the region
with supporting units. What is not clear is whether these units
are forward deployed between Skopje and the border. The terrain
on the border along the Pristina-Skopje highway is quite hilly,
with the advantage to the defense, while the terrain along the
Leskovac-Skopje airport route is more favorable to rapid
It is not clear that Serbia could take Skopje. It is not clear
that Serbia would want to take Skopje. Rather, attacking and
seizing the airport and encircling and using artillery to bombard
Skopje could produce an interesting political result: inflicting
casualties and capturing NATO personnel, while shifting the
diplomatic conversation from the status of Kosovar Albanians to
the terms under which Serbians will withdraw from Macedonia and
release NATO prisoners. With the weather forecast for the border
region snow and sleet with low clouds for the next few days, the
ability of NATO air power to create a "highway of death," Iraqi
style, faces some limits.
We are not predicting that this will happen. We are saying that
this is a serious option for the Serbs and that their troop
movements seem to indicate a willingness to at least bluff the
option. They have clearly got the attention of NATO command.
Agence France Presse reported on March 17 that an unnamed NATO
official publicly warned Serbia that an attack against Macedonia
would be "a catastrophe" for the Serbs.
There is little doubt but that NATO could defeat Serbia's armed
forces. It is not clear, however, that forces currently in
Macedonia could do so. It is certainly not clear that they could
do so without major casualties. What Milosevic is doing is
causing NATO to evaluate the potential cost of intervention.
Until now, the assumption has been that NATO could carry out an
Iraq style bombardment without any collateral danger. Milosevic
has been attempting to convince NATO that Serbia is not Iraq, and
that the potential cost for intervention is much higher than NATO
ought to be willing to pay. At the very least, he is making it
clear that the current force structure in Macedonia is woefully
insufficient to assure their own security, let alone to intervene
It is not clear to us that the Serbs will take the chance. They
are in a powerful defensive position blocking passes into Kosovo.
The correlation of forces does not give them a great advantage.
The risk of losing irreplaceable formations is high.
Nevertheless, a twenty-five mile encirclement could change the
entire geometry of regional relationships. In the past,
Milosevic has not been a serious gambler. He has consistently
withdrawn his bluffs at the last minute. We certainly don't know
what he intends to do this time, but he has set up quite a bluff,
at the very least.