The captain-songwriter and the general who avoided the third world war

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

It might seem like a joke from the series: "there are two Englishmen, an American, a Spaniard, three Russians, etc ..." but the events that happened on the 12 June 1999 at the "Slatina" airport in Pristina could have taken a decisive turn worse if it hadn't been for the granitic determination of a captain and a general not to obey an order that could have started a spiral of actions and reactions that could have become, in the worst cases, very difficult to control.

The 11 June 1999, after a year and a half of fighting on the ground and eighty days of NATO bombing, the "Kosovo War" finally came to an end, with the Kumanovo peace accords. According to these agreements, the Yugoslav armed forces and police would have to cede control of the territory of the province of Kosovo to a multinational force (KFOR) that should have managed its security on the spot during the "post-war" period. But there was a Gordian knot that had not yet been loosened; the extent and modality of Russia's participation in the international mission.

The events of the "Kosovo War" constituted a sort of "watershed" for Russia and its political leadership. If until then President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, weak and sick, had somehow managed to contain the nationalist thrusts that former Prime Minister Evgeny Maksimovich Primakov had their main champion, the shamefully punitive attack of the Atlantic Alliance against of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the demonizing treatment that had been reserved for the Serbs had sounded like dramatic alarm bells to the ears of the Russians: without a renewed muscular policy, NATO would never have stopped to invest Russia itself. This is why, during the complicated negotiation process that led to the long-awaited agreements of Kumanovo, Russia presented itself as a guarantor of Yugoslavia, claiming to have its own "area of ​​employment" and its own "autonomous command". These claims differed considerably from what had happened previously in Bosnia, where the Russian troops present there were completely subordinated to the IFOR / SFOR chain of command.

Western diplomats vigorously opposed the Russian claims, pointing out as an excuse the fact that a completely autonomous Russian occupation sector would contribute to a de facto partition of Kosovo whose unity was intended instead to be preserved. In reality, the most prosaic truth is that, after the end of the "Cold War", diplomats and Western governments, first and foremost that Francisco Javier Solana de Madariaga who was at that time of the Atlantic Alliance secretary general, were become in some ways prisoners of their own "ὕβϱις" (hýbris, an ancient Greek term vaguely translatable as "arrogance / arrogance") and, thinking they had really won the "final battle of history", they believed they could always afford the luxury of answering spades to the wishes of Moscow without even deigning to take Russian national interests into consideration even when, as in this case, for a variety of strategic reasons and international prestige, Moscow was absolutely unwilling to back down.

The inability of Western leaders, both civil and military, to decipher the true intentions of the Kremlin emerged in all their fullness when, on the night between the 11 and the 12 in June, under the full coverage of the CNN and BBC cameras , a unit of VDVs (Russian paratroopers) formerly part of the Russian contingent of the IFOR / SFOR, crossed the border between Bosnia and Serbia and quickly moved towards Kosovo among the jubilation of the Serbian population witnessing the event.

The swift Russian action caught the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance completely off guard and unable to organize a timely counter-move. In reality, some NATO military units were already in Kosovo; these were elements of the special forces that had been infiltrated during the conflict to support the Albanian guerrillas and to help identify the targets of NATO air strikes. In particular the men of the Norwegian special forces (Forsvarets Spesialkommando, FSK) and the British ones (Special Air Service, SAS) were already attested in the outskirts of Pristina but they certainly did not have sufficient strength to hope to take control of the entire city, having only to perform the function of "eyes and ears" of the NATO forces which, at that very moment, were entering Kosovo from Macedonia and Albania.

The strategic goal that absorbed the attention of NATO headquarters was Pristina's “Slatina” airport, largely spared by NATO's fighter-bombers precisely to serve as a point of arrival for KFOR's reinforcements in the immediate post-war period. The commander-in-chief of NATO forces, General Wesley Kanne Clark, gave orders to the "Allied Rapid Reaction Corps" (ARRC) and to their commander, the British general Mike Jackson, to proceed quickly to the occupation of the airport.

Born in the 1944 in Yorkshire in a family of ancient military traditions, Sir Michael "Mike" David Jackson could boast a career as a professional soldier started in the 1963 which included, among others, the command of the 1o battalion, of the paratrooper regiment of His Britannic Majesty and the 39a Infantry Brigade on three different operational tours in Northern Ireland, the command of the "Berlin Infantry Brigade" (Berlin infantry brigade), a British ad hoc unit destined to defend West Berlin in the event of a Soviet attack during the "War Cold ", and the command of the 3a mechanized division, units of the British army largely involved in peacekeeping missions during the wars of disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Now, at the age of 55 years and with 36 years of career behind him, Mike Jackson was preparing for what, a posteriori, he would have called "the decisive moment of my life", at the head of a multiform military team composed of battalions of British, French, German and Italian origin.

In the advance towards Pristina and its airport, the vanguard of the "Allied Rapid Reaction Corps" (ARRC) was formed by the "Blues and Royals" squadron, "The Life Guards", part of the "Household Cavalry Regiment" whose "1st Troop ”was at the time under the command of the twenty-five year old Captain James Hillier Blount.

Like General Jackson, Captain Blount also came from a family of ancient military traditions, dating as far back as the time of King Canute the Great (Knútr inn ríki), ruler of Denmark, England, Norway and Scania between the 1016 and the 1035. However, the operational timing was definitely not on their side, and when the British soldiers arrived, on the morning of 12 June, in view of the airport, they found that it had already been occupied by the Russian paratroopers who had entrenched themselves around the tracks. The commander in chief of the Russian assault force was Colonel-General Viktor Mikhailovich Zavarzin, veteran of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Tajikistan of the years '80 and' 90, commander of the joint forces of Russia and Turkmenistan in Central Asia and high representative of Russia at NATO.

For this mission General Zavarzin could avail himself of the collaboration of Colonel Nikolay Ivanovich Ignatov as head of the paratroopers, and of Colonel Yunus-Bek Bamatgireyevich Yevkurov (Yevkurnakan Bamatgiri Yunusbek, in Inguscle language) responsible for the Spetsnaz GRU annexed to the mission.

When Captain Blount and his men approached the airport, they immediately realized that the Russians were unwilling to dislodge and that the resolution of the whole affair was reduced to a clear binary choice: either the NATO troops were prepared for a force action to oust the Russian paratroopers from the airport, or it was necessary to start a negotiation.

While on the ground the officers and their subordinates consulted hard to decide on what to do, in high places someone had already made his decision. As soon as the CNN and BBC cameras showed the whole world the movements of the Russian troops from Bosnia through Serbia, General Wesley Clark had a long telephone conversation with Javier Solana about the latest developments.

To this day it is not yet clear what the two have said, also because Solana has always shown an innate ability to dodge any kind of responsibility for what happened later. The fact is that, bypassing the entire command line, Clark contacted Blount and the leading elements of the "Life Guards" positioned in front of the Pristina airport and ordered him to "overwhelm the Russians and take control of the airport".

The order received threw Captain Blount in an uncomfortable situation. Disobeying would have meant immediate translation to court martial, but blindly following the directives received would have led to a direct confrontation with entrenched paratroopers with consequent losses on both sides and the possibility that this "accident" would lead to something much more serious!

Years later, and in numerous interviews, the now ex-captain has repeatedly reiterated that, even under threat of court martial, he would never have completed this order. Fortunately for Blount and his men, the responsibility for the subsequent actions was quickly taken by General Jackson who, from his headquarters in Skopje, Macedonia, and completely disregarding the orders, moved by helicopter directly to Pristina and, after having received detailed reports on the situation both from Blount and from the men of the Norwegian and British special forces (who continued to monitor the movements of the Yugoslav forces), asked and obtained parliamentarians with the Russian officers.

The first meeting took place inside the airport, with Jackson on one side and Zavarzin, Yevkurov and Ignatov on the other. No agreement was reached on that occasion, but at least the soldiers of the two sides had spoken and the only "victim" had been a whiskey tax that the four officers had split.

Not so well, on the other hand, was the meeting that Jackson had on the morning of 13 June, once he returned to his command in Skopje, with General Clark. He was still firmly determined to remove the Russians from their position by ignoring Jackson's objections that such an occurrence could have had incalculable consequences. In the long run, the discussion degenerated into a real quarrel that culminated with the topical phrase with which Jackson dismissed Clark once and for all: "I won't start World War III for you!".

Clark was furious but his macho bravado time was quickly coming to an end. After a series of negotiations that lasted several days, the Russians finally agreed to clear the airport and Captain Blount and his men could occupy it without incident. General Clark returned to the NATO command in Belgium with his tail between his legs, while his nemesis Jackson was able to assume the role of commander of the KFOR undisturbed despite the negative opinion of practically all the American political and military establishment, deeply shaken by the 'having been so humiliated by a "fucking Englishman".

The Yugoslav forces continued their retreat from Kosovo and the Russian contingent, although it did not obtain its own area of ​​employment, could still deploy its forces throughout the region and have its own autonomous chain of command. The compromise had finally succeeded in giving birth to a reasonable solution!

Twenty years have passed since the events of the 1999 Pristina airport and what happened in those hectic days has been largely forgotten by most of the public, however it is good to remind ourselves that without judgment and moderation practiced by a handful of men with reason, events could have taken a very different turn.

It is also interesting to analyze how, the events of June 1999 have affected so differently and profoundly in the successive lives and careers of all the protagonists involved. The 1 October 2002, after six years spent in the army, Captain James Hillier Blount took leave of the British army and embarked on a musical career with the stage name of "James Blunt" soon becoming an international star thanks to songs such as " You're beautiful ”and“ Goodbye My Lover ”and selling over 20 million copies to date.

Although many know him as a singer and songwriter, few people remember his involvement in the Pristina 1999 events.

After those fateful days in which he demonstrated all his stature as commander and leader in the fullest sense of the word, General Sir Michael "Mike" David Jackson continued to command KFOR until the beginning of the 2000 year, when he returned to the UK for assume command of the British Army ground forces and begin a long process of restructuring this critical component of the British military instrument and finally being promoted, the 1 February 2003, to the post of Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Her British Majesty ; role he held until 2006 before retiring, after 43 years of career, and devote himself to writing and lectures, without ever giving up his frankness and biting spirit.

On the Russian side, Colonel-General Viktor Mikhailovich Zavarzin continued to serve in the Russian delegation to NATO and in various positions at the Russian high command post until 2003 when, after 37 years of honorable service, he retired to devote himself to the politics, being elected to the Duma at the block of the "United Russia" party, a role he holds today.

Colonel Nikolay Ivanovich Ignatov, on the other hand, has never stopped serving at the VDVs, the paratroop forces of Russia, being promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and being assigned first to the command of the "7a Guard Air Assault division" and then to commander of the entire VDV. Today, at 63 years of age and 45 of service, Ignatov continues to remain active in the chain of command of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.

Interesting was then the parable of Colonel Yunus-Bek Bamatgireyevich Yevkurov, the Spetsnaz GRU operations manager. Yevkurov continued to serve in different roles both in the Spetsnaz and VDV ranks included during the bloody "Second Chechen War", earning numerous medals and honors, including that of "Hero of the Russian Federation" for saving 12 prisoners Russians from the hands of Chechen guerrillas despite having been wounded in action. In 2008, after 23 years of service, Yevkurov was put to rest and appointed by the then President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev to the role of president of the Republic of Ingushetia, one of the autonomous republics of the Russian Caucasus. In this position, held for the following 11 years, until June 2019, Yevkurov managed not only the economic reconstruction of his homeland but also the counter-insurgency operations aimed at eradicating the Islamist insurgency from the Russian Caucasus. Under the pressure of popular demonstrations caused by the signing of a controversial agreement to change the borders between the Republic of Ingushetia and the Republic of Chechnya, Yevkurov presented his resignation but was promptly reinstated in the Russian armed forces with the post of deputy Ministry of Defense.

On the side of the Atlantic Alliance, on the other hand, Francisco Javier Solana de Madariaga has succeeded with an extraordinary ability to avoid any negative repercussions both with respect to the dubious performance provided by NATO forces during the "Kosovo War" and to the foolishness caused by the events at the Pristina airport. Immediately after the end of his mandate as Secretary General of NATO, he succeeded in accumulating in himself the offices of: general secretary of the Western European Union, general secretary of the Council of the European Union and high representative of the common foreign and security policy of the 'European Union, positions he held for 10 years, up to 2009. It is the opinion of the author of this article that Solana's membership of the famous "Trilateral Commission" helped him a lot to avoid stains on his "clear career".

The same cannot be said for General Wesley Kanne Clark. Already heavily under fire from the Pentagon's high poppies for failing to assess Milosevic's intentions and for his inordinate management of the "Kosovo War", as well as his tendency to report directly to President Bill Clinton and the secretary of state Medeleine Albright completely bypassing the normal hierarchical chain, the blow to Pristina and the public humiliation caused by his failure to impose himself on the British general Jackson caused Clark a rapid eclipse from his position as commander in chief of NATO forces.

Withdrawn to private life, Clark decided to devote himself first to the business world with very bad results (he only earned 3,1 million dollars in the first three years, against the 40 that was set) and then to the political career in the ranks of the Democratic Party where however he did not he certainly shone with acumen (his 2008 presidential campaign was literally eclipsed by Obama's star and he, out of spite, also ended up giving support to that Hillary Clinton who was beaten by Obama).

In light of this and other things, we can easily say that the "fool of Pristina" helped to mark the end of the career of a substantially mediocre man who, eager to do the "macho" for a day, in June of 1999, has risked us all living a "torrid" summer, had it not been for the providential presence of a British captain-songwriter and general endowed with commendable and very British "self-control".

Photo: web / YouTube