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Crisis in Yugoslavia | ANALYSIS

Milosevic Engaged in Sly Game of Survival

Strategy: Yugoslav leader has avoided confrontation, preserving enough militarily to keep NATO off balance.

April 03, 1999|PAUL RICHTER and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Facing the world's most powerful alliance with an outdated war machine, Slobodan Milosevic is proving himself a worthy heir to Yugoslav military leaders who bloodied Hitler and defied Stalin.

The Yugoslav president has taken a fearsome pounding by NATO warplanes, yet he has preserved enough of his air defenses and ground forces to keep the alliance at arm's length and off balance. While his adversaries were still talking peace, he was mobilizing a blitzkrieg "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians that is now so far along it may render moot any talk of a NATO ground campaign.

He has skillfully exploited the propaganda value of captured U.S. soldiers and America's loss of an F-117A bomber to remind the West of the time, blood and money that would be required in an all-out fight for Kosovo, a separatist southern province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

In fact, after the first 10 days of the air campaign, NATO's military pros have come to regard Milosevic with a grudging respect.

While he could still overplay his hand, "he's been shrewd" so far, one U.S. defense official said. Milosevic apparently has studied the playbook of America's recent challengers--Iraq, Vietnam, North Korea--"and learned the lessons better than most," this official said.

Milosevic has, in essence, refused to play the alliance's game.

While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has prosecuted the kind of grinding war of attrition associated with the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, Milosevic has played the game of sly survival associated with another military thinker, China's Sun Tzu. He has largely avoided direct confrontation by ducking and evading, and he has ordered his forces to fire back when they had at least some chance of inflicting casualties that would sap the opposition's will to fight.

Last fall, after receiving six months' notice that NATO might strike, he seized the initiative.

Despite his promises to reduce his forces in Kosovo, Milosevic began moving troops out of their barracks and back into the field, arming secret police with heavy guns and holding live-fire training exercises--a dress rehearsal for the all-out assault that was to follow, according to NATO officials.

By February, his forces were beginning to drive ethnic Albanians in Kosovo from their homes for a second time. In mid-March, there were major attacks in progress, and, by the time peace talks were suspended last month, Milosevic already had about 40,000 troops and police in Kosovo.

He was carrying out "a master plan that was conceived, and well on its way to being executed, before the first bomb was dropped," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels.

Milosevic's army is believed to have buried extra supplies and ammunition to shield the materiel from NATO's bombardment. And in the last days before the bombing began, his commanders began dispersing ground forces to make it harder for NATO planes to hit them.

Milosevic's swift thrust means that, should he decide to begin negotiating with NATO, he appears to have firm control of the northern and central parts of Kosovo--the areas with the most wealth, minerals and historic sites, including the medieval churches that have strong emotional value to the Serbian population.

If Milosevic won control of this region alone in an internationally sanctioned partition of Kosovo, it would probably be enough to satisfy most Serbs--and further strengthen his hold on power, analysts say.

NATO officials have acknowledged from the beginning that Milosevic's air defenses are his greatest threat, and he has used them to maximum effect. By keeping many of his surface-to-air missile battery radar units turned off, he has made them difficult to track and destroy. And that has forced NATO to devote more of its sorties to simply keeping track of the defenses.

With this threat still very much alive, NATO hasn't been able to move as vigorously as it might have to strike the tanks and troops in Kosovo that are carrying out the assault on the ethnic Albanian community.

NATO's military leadership has been given an awful choice: Hold back these attacks--and allow the Yugoslav army and police forces to continue their rampage--or start flying lower and slower--and risk the casualties and aircraft losses that could turn the Western public against the mission.

Milosevic's strategy, combined with poor weather, has restrained the alliance from beginning the broader attack phase of the campaign, which some experts expected would have started days ago.

In their first detailed analysis of the battle, Pentagon officials asserted this week that the bombardment has done substantial damage to Yugoslav air defenses, yet they conceded that those defenses remain a major danger.

"We need to grind away at this," said Vice Adm. Scott A. Fry, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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