“24th March 1999: A dark anniversary. The attitude of Greece. Recommendations and the issue of strategic choices”

“24th March 1999: A dark anniversary. The attitude of Greece. Recommendations and the issue of strategic choices”



The bilateral interests, motives, decisions events and consequences of NATO’s aggressive attack against Republic of Serbia (SRJ) in 1999, have to be commemorated in order for the political leaders and societies to be wiser in the future.

During the NATO’s intervention and bombing against SRJ, the Greek attitude proved that the bonds between Greece and Serbia are deep, historical, stable and cover not only the political decision makers but mainly the two societies.

Today the broader Balkan area faces instability, a great powers competition, peripheral revisionist ambitions, social challenges like depopulation and mass migration, authoritarianism (theocratic or ideological) Every country has to respect International Law and at the same time to be aware of the cynical international environment before making strategic choices for the future.


Ladies and Gentlemen, the today’s event takes place in the shadow of the terrorist attack in Moscow, an unacceptable action for every civilized person. My thoughts are with the families of the so many dead and wounded. Thank you for the opportunity given to me in order to express my views   concerning the commemoration of the 1999 NATO’s bombing against the Republic of Serbia. Today we stand here with deep respect for all innocent victims of that period.

Kosovo has a high historical, strategic and religious value for Serbia.  Nationalism was probably the main factor of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The Constitution of 1974 was not enough to ease the dynamic activities coming from different nationalities within Yugoslavia. After 1986 Slobodan Milosevits himself talked about the rights of the Serbian Nation. The Kosovo Albanians reacted when the Constitution was changed, abolishing thus much of their autonomy. The Bosnia conflict from 1991 to 1994 ended with Daton Agreement which had not any provisions about Kosovo. The appearance of the Albanian extremist organization KLA (UCK) made the situation worse.


NATO argues that in response to Serbian “aggression” in Kosovo, it began air operations with code name OPERATION ALLIED FORCE against Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) on March 24, 1999 which lasted 78 days. Aircrafts from 13 NATO members participated. The mission was to attack the Yugoslav military infrastructure and to degrade the ability of Yugoslav forces in order to deter future attacks on Albanian Kosovars. Initially nobody believed that Serbia could resist for so long. The results were devastating. Thousands of military and innocent deaths, catastrophe of significant infrastructure (not only military), heavy economic damage as well as ecological and health consequences.  You Know the details better than me.

According to NATO, president Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing policy, produced flows of refugees. Since diplomacy had failed, NATO launched an air campaign to halt the humanitarian catastrophe and the possible expansion of the conflict across borders. On 10 June 1999, the FRY accepted the withdrawal of its military, police and paramilitary forces and the deployment of an international civil and security presence.

Was really Kosovo the most serious case violating human rights at that period? Several cases were much worse. The 1994 Human Rights Watch report, argued that 39.000 people died in the Kurdish southeast Turkey conflict (half the losses occurred in the previous year). Two million Kurds had been displaced within 10 years of conflict; 108 villages were depopulated only between 9 May and 10 July 1994, and in the autumn of 1994 some 137 were demolished. In 2009, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), was closed down. Turks attempted to erase Kurdish culture by using threats of violence to ban Kurdish TV, radio, and language (Human Rights Watch 2009).

More than 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The US was cooperating with the extremist and brutal Taliban regime for geopolitical reasons. Russians were crushing nationalists in the Caucuses, as Albanian Kosovars were fighting the Serbs. Despite brutality and human rights violations, US aid to Colombia was increased against leftist insurgents. There was not any US reaction about the 200,000 Serbs forcibly expelled from the Krajina region of Croatia in August 1995. Any pure humanitarian concern would motivate US to stop KLA. After the retreat of Serbs from Kosovo, the KLA started its own revenge against Serbs. KLA fighters began to violently expel as many Serbs from Kosovo as they could, committing an ethnic cleansing.

After the above considerations it is possible that NATO’s military campaign against the Republic of Serbia had more than one motives, as the following:

  • NATO’s credibility, in a period after the collapse of USSR, that it needed a new role and after its inaction in Bosnia.
  • Keeping the US and Europe’s strong bonds, with NATO presence and under US protection and influence.
  • Geopolitical competition in Balkans between US and Russia. Regional interests of other peripheral countries.
  • Geopolitical energy interests engaging central Asia.
  • A US approach to the Islamic world.
  • Reduce the flow of mass migration.

NATO did not receive Security Council authorization and it was not acting in self-defense. NATO’s military action violated UN Charter and some UN relative resolutions.

NATO attacks on Yugoslavia damaged the relationship between Russia and the US. It also damaged the Russian prestige, the European climate of trust and cooperation and the European collective security system. Europeans failed to stabilize the situation in the Balkans. The war encouraged Albania after 2008 to seek implementation of its “Great Albania’s” expansive vision. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia converted a local ethnic conflict into an international crisis. NATO’s high-altitude bombing campaign, with significant civilian casualties within the FRY, raises questions about means management in a “humanitarian operation”.

NATO made demands at Rambouillet that were very difficult for any government to accept. The FRYs refusal to accept those terms triggered NATO’s use of force.


Maybe it would be useful to recall some personal memories. As a seven years old boy at Corfu, my grandfather used to share with me his own memories from 1916. He remembered the 120.000 Serbian troops arriving at the island of Corfu, facing starvation and many diseases. The multiple help from the local people of the Island (about 98.000 inhabitants) for several months, contributed to their fast recovery. At the same time the Serbian Army was rearmed and trained by the French in order to reengage the Balkan front. The Serbian King and government had also moved at the Island of Corfu till the end of war.

As a Naval Officer, during the period 1993 – 1994 I studied at the US Naval War College. For the ongoing war in Bosnia, my American colleges kept a negative view about the Serbs. This attitude started changing when I presented some Greek relative articles and a few photos where Muslim paramilitary fighters were holding Serbian heads as trophies.

Historically, Greece and Serbia shared many common political, cultural, religious and social interests. During the 20th century they have fought side by side during 2 Balkan wars and 2 World Wars.

Greece suggested a resolution to the Kosovo crisis preserving Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity and protecting Kosovar Albanian human rights. Greece did not participated in the air operation and under no circumstances in any ground operation. After a possible agreement, Greece would contribute forces for peacekeeping.

Greece advocated an end to air strikes and return to political dialogue. On April 18, a Greek medical group entered Kosovo and became the only NGO to serve Albanians and Serbs in the region. The Greek media and Orthodox Church had encouraged popular opposition to NATO’s bombing campaign.

On 7th April 1999 “AEK” one of the most famous Greek football teams arrived to Belgrade in order to play the most important game of its history with Partizan, while the NATO’s military operation continued. The political message was to stop the war immediately.

A representative, poll, released on April 17, indicated that over 96% of the Greek public opposed the NATO operation. Many anti-NATO and anti-U.S. widespread protests took place.  All Greek opposition political party leaders had called for a political solution to the crisis. Greece sent also help to the Krajna Serb refugees.

In the Hellenic Navy there were a few crew objections to participate in NATO’s embargo. Every one of military background understands that any objections on a military mission are unacceptable and have to be punished but at the same time it indicates the feelings about Serbs.

Today about fifteen Greek cities keep brotherhood relations with corresponding Serbian cities and more villages do the same, exchanging cultural events very often. Till today Greece does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.


The Balkans continue to be an area of great powers interest and competition. There are interstate disputes, minorities issues, cultural differences, religion divisions, religion extremism, many illegal activities, lack of trust and revisionist policies from some states (for example according to the Albanian school books, I should feel as an Albanian since my origin place of Corfu has to be Albanian according to “Great Albania” expansive aspirations, regardless the fact that Greeks live there exclusively for at least 3.000 years).

The great trap in politics is to believe that international environment can be approached in terms of the rules existing within a state. International Law in many cases has a political character. It is also a trap to adopt the populist philosophy of black and white (or good and bad) as well as various conspiracy theories, which usually prohibit a self-critic procedure.

A lot of controversial factors make a country’s strategic choices a difficult task. Even the final decision will usually contain some risk. At the strategic level any country has to think about its existential and vital national interests. Values and the way of living are some of the most important vital interests.

There are no perfect alliances since they consist of Countries and each Country constitutes a distinct player. Every state has to be adjustable and capable by itself in order to protect its own interests and be respected within its alliances. We all know about European struggle for integration and on the challenges that it faces (demographics, mass illegal migration, the invasion in Ukraine In this context NATO does not fully cover the aspirations and needs of its members states. Greece knows that better thinking of NATO’s stance in Cyprus and its neutral stance in Greco-Turkish relations since Turkey is also a member.

Greece is a maritime nation and depends on the sea routes. It is logical to choose the western alliances since they control the seas. On the value level the West contains states that respect civil state, civil society, they are Democratic and there are rules for keeping that as a condition. In non-western world the authoritarian regimes either religious or ideological prevail. Europe had for many centuries its own authoritarian (religious and ideological) past where freedom and progress had stopped for centuries. The European continent was reborn when ancient Greece was rediscovered. Humanism, Renaissance, French Revolution, Civil State and Democracy are the children of that discovery.

Greece has chosen the West as its strategic partner but this fact doesn’t mean that it can’t establish close relationship of multiple levels with other non-western countries. We all hope for a better future where a total wide vision for the Balkan area will cover the local controversial narrow ambitions which allow the intrusion of foreign centers at the expense of Balkan societies.

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to address this sad and heroic anniversary, to carry the message of the Greek solidarity and to share with you some thoughts about current strategic choices.

25 MARCH 2024

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Vasilios Martzoukos HN.

Honorary C.O. of Hellenic Naval Academy

Vice President of the Hellenic Institute for Strategic Studies