US Intervention in the Balkans: The 1990s Yugoslav Wars Explained

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe led to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, resulting in the Yugoslav Wars and brutal ethnic cleansing.

Dec 10, 2022By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

1990s yugoslav wars US intervention balkans


After World War II, the nation of Yugoslavia was an Eastern European socialist state that was proudly independent of fealty to the Soviet Union. However, when the Soviet Union crumbled, Yugoslavia quickly followed. During the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia was a hotbed of ethnic tensions, failed economies, and even civil war, a period now known as the Yugoslav Wars. Social and ethnic tensions that had been suppressed during Yugoslavia’s powerful, autocratic leadership erupted with fury. As the world watched the violence in Bosnia and Kosovo in horror, the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) felt compelled to intervene. In separate instances, the US and its allies launched air wars against Serbia, the most powerful state of former Yugoslavia.


Powder Keg: World War I & Yugoslavia United

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A depiction of the summer 1914 assassination of Austria-Hungary’s archduke, Franz Ferdinand, by Gavrilo Princip, via Hungary Today


In the early 1910s, Europe had become locked into a rigid system of military alliances. Tensions had risen over the decades over colonialism competition in Africa and Asia, with European imperial powers seeking the most valuable territories. Western Europe had been mostly at peace since the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, and many leaders thought a brief war would be a good show of strength. In southeastern Europe, the decline of the Ottoman Empire had created an unstable situation in the Balkans region, which became known as the “powder keg of Europe” due to its instability and violence.


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a political radical named Gavrilo Princip. This sparked a chain reaction of events that led to World War I, with all major European powers locked into war through their alliances. At the end of World War I, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed and recognized by the United States in February 1919. It was composed of a number of smaller kingdoms, the largest of which was the Kingdom of Serbia.


World War II: Yugoslavia Divided Again

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A map showing the division of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by the Axis Powers during World War II, via The National World War II Museum, New Orleans


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While the Balkans was the spark of World War I and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created from the War, World War II re-divided the region. Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany, the dominant Axis Power in Europe, in April 1941. Due to its location, Yugoslavia was divided among the Axis Powers in Europe: Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The haphazard division of Yugoslavia amplified the existing demographic complexity of the Balkans to create an unstable territory. Throughout the war, the Axis Powers dealt with widespread Partisan rebels.


Unlike most other German-occupied territories in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia largely liberated itself through Partisan military activity (aided by Allied equipment). Conflict erupted regarding which new government would take over from the German Nazis and Italian fascists. There were communists supported by the Soviet Union, royalists who supported the Yugoslav government-in-exile (in Britain), and those who wanted a democratic republic. The communists were the most powerful group and won the elections in November 1945 by wide margins. This victory, however, was allegedly tainted by intimidation, voter suppression, and outright election fraud.


1940s – 1980: The Tito Era in Socialist Yugoslavia

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Josip Broz Tito led the Partisan rebels in Yugoslavia during World War II and was later the country’s leader until his death in 1980, via Radio Free Europe


Winner of the November 1945 election, Josip Broz Tito became the official premier of Yugoslavia. He operated as a devout communist, including nationalizing basic industries, but refused to submit to the whims of the Soviet Union. Famously, Yugoslavia split from the Soviet bloc in 1948. As a non-aligned nation, Yugoslavia became an oddity during the Cold War: a communist state that received some support and trade from the West. In 1953, Tito was elected to the new position of President…and would be re-elected for the rest of his life.


Throughout his tenure, Tito remained popular in Yugoslavia. Strong government control, a healthy economy, and a popular war hero national leader helped soothe existing ethnic tensions in the complex region. Tito liberalized the non-aligned Yugoslavia more than other socialist states in Europe, providing a positive image of Yugoslavia as a “noble” socialist state. Tito’s international popularity resulted in the largest state funeral in history in 1980, with delegations from all types of governing systems. As recognition of Yugoslavia’s stability, the city of Sarajevo was awarded with hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics, potentially representing the international “high point” of Yugoslavia’s reputation.


Late 1980s – 1992: Crumbling of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Wars

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A map showing the breakup of Yugoslavia by spring 1992, via Remembering Srebrenica


Although Tito had effectively been made President-for-Life, a 1974 constitution allowed for the creation of separate republics within Yugoslavia that would elect leaders who would govern collectively. This constitution of 1974 resulted in the post-Tito Yugoslavia becoming a loose federation rather than a strongly united country. Without this strong unity, Yugoslavia would be much more vulnerable to the coming sociopolitical calamity of the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to crumble, and communism fell out of favor.


The seeds of the breakup took root in 1989. In Serbia, the most powerful republic of Yugoslavia, a nationalist named Slobodan Milosevic was appointed President. Milosevic wanted Yugoslavia to become a federation under Serbian control. Slovenia and Croatia wanted a looser confederation because they feared Serb domination. In 1991, the breakup began with Slovenia and Croatia announcing their independence. Serbia accused the two republics of separatism. Conflict erupted in Croatia due to the large minority population of ethnic Serbs, who wanted Croatia to remain united with Serbia. The conflict deepened in 1992, when Bosnia, a third Yugoslav republic, declared its own independence after a referendum on March 1, paving the way for the Yugoslav Wars.


1992-1995: The Bosnian War

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Towers burning in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 8, 1992 during the Siege of Sarajevo, via Radio Free Europe


Despite quick international recognition of the new nation of Bosnia, ethnic Serb forces rejected this independence and seized the capital city of Sarajevo. Within Bosnia, different ethnic groups composing the former Yugoslav Army created new allegiances and attacked each other. Initially, Serb forces had the advantage and attacked ethnic Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic invaded Bosnia to “free” ethnic Serbs, who were mostly Orthodox Christians, from persecution. Croats (Croatians) in Bosnia also rebelled, seeking their own republic with the backing of Croatia.


The United Nations intervened in 1993, declaring various cities “safe zones” for persecuted Muslims. The Serbs largely ignored these zones and committed terrible atrocities against civilians, including women and children. This was considered to be the first ethnic cleansing–akin to genocide–in Europe since the Holocaust during World War II. In 1995, after three years of warfare, the Serbs decided to end the war forcefully by destroying the ethnic enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa, Bosnia.


Autumn 1995: US Intervention in the Bosnian War

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NATO forces in Bosnia during Bosnian War intervention, via NATO Review


The Serb attack on Srebrenica in July 1995 horrified the world, with over 7,000 innocent civilians killed. The United States sent a delegation to meet with other NATO leaders in London, and it was decided that NATO would defend civilians in the Serb-targeted town of Gorazde. The small forces of UN Peacekeepers, present in the former Yugoslavia since 1993, were determined to be ineffectual. Planning began for an air-based intervention, as the United States opposed using “boots on the ground” after the debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 (Operation Gothic Serpent, widely known from the popular film Black Hawk Down).


On August 28, 1995, a Serb artillery shell killed 38 civilians in a Sarajevo market. This was the final straw that launched Operation Deliberate Force, the US-led NATO air war against Serb forces in Bosnia. NATO air forces, with some artillery assistance, attacked Serb heavy equipment in Bosnia. After three weeks of continuous attacks, the Serbs were willing to enter peace negotiations. In November 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in Dayton, Ohio among the various combatants in Bosnia. The formal signing, which ended the Bosnian War, occurred in Paris on December 14.


Post-Dayton: KFOR/SFOR Peacekeeping in Bosnia

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US troops in 1996 participating in IFOR, the NATO peacekeeping Implementation FORce in Bosnia after the Bosnian War, via NATO Multimedia


While the lessons of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 made the US pursue an air war without corresponding ground troops in Bosnia, lessons of the Gulf War aftermath ensured that NATO would not simply leave Bosnia after the Dayton Accords were signed. Although the UN Peacekeepers in Bosnia had been deemed ineffective, this time, peacekeeping would be done primarily by NATO under a UN mandate. The Bosnian IFOR (Implementation FORce) operated from December 1995 to December 1996 and was composed of some 54,000 troops. Roughly 20,000 of these troops came from the United States.


Some US troops remained as peacekeepers in Bosnia after December 1996 as IFOR transitioned to SFOR (Stabilization FORce). Initially, SFOR was about half the size of IFOR, as the threat of ethnic violence was deemed to have diminished significantly. SFOR has remained in operation, though steadily reduced, since its inception at the end of 1996. By 2003, it had been reduced to only 12,000 NATO troops. Today, however, Bosnia still requests the presence of US troops due to fears of ethnic tensions stirred up by resurgent nationalism in Serbia.


1998-99: Serbia & the Kosovo War

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Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic (left) and US President Bill Clinton (right) came to conflict again in 1999 with the Kosovo War, via The Strategy Bridge


Unfortunately, tensions in the Balkans would resurge only a few years after the Bosnian War. In southern Serbia, the breakaway region of Kosovo had avoided the worst violence of the Bosnian War, but allegedly only through direct American threats of military response if Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic committed violence in the region. Violence erupted in Kosovo in early 1998, with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) increasing their attacks on Serb authorities. In retaliation, Serbs responded with excessive force, including killing civilians. As violence increased between Serbs and Kosovars (people in Kosovo), the US and its allies met to determine a response.


Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo wanted an independent country, but most Serbs rejected this proposal. Throughout the spring of 1998, diplomatic negotiations routinely broke down, and Serb-Kosovar violence continued. The United Nations demanded an end to Serbian violence, and NATO forces conducted “air shows” near Serbia’s borders to try and intimidate Milosevic into stopping his aggressive forces. However, diplomacy could not reduce tensions, and by October 1998, NATO began drawing up plans for a new air war against Serbia. The continued violence by Serbs in Kosovo during this time, including the violent attacks against Serbs by the KLA, is commonly known as the Kosovo War.


1999: Operation Allied Force

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A map showing flight paths for the NATO air war against Serbia in 1999, via Air Force Magazine


In early 1999, the US reached the end of diplomatic negotiations with Serbia. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented an ultimatum: if Serbia did not end ethnic cleansing and grant Kosovar Albanians more self-government, NATO would respond militarily. When Milosevic refused the ultimatum, Operation Allied Force commenced. Beginning on March 24, 1999, the US and NATO embarked on a 78-day air war against Serbia. Unlike Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, which was conducted against ethnic Serb and Serb-allied forces in Bosnia, Operation Allied Force was conducted against the sovereign nation of Serbia itself.


The air war was focused on military targets and intended to minimize any casualties to Serbia’s civilian population. Strikes were highly successful, and Serbia agreed to a peace deal on June 9. On June 10, Serbian forces began to leave Kosovo, paving the way for independence. Slobodan Milosevic remained in power after the air war and was re-elected as the head of the Socialist Party in 2000 but lost the presidential election later that year. He had been the authoritarian leader of Serbia for over eleven years.


Diplomatic Aftermath of Operation Allied Force

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A photograph of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, via WBUR


After losing the 2000 presidential election in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic was arrested and later transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands. Milosevic’s transfer to the ICC in June 2001 was groundbreaking, as it was the most significant instance of international justice for war crimes. The trial began in February 2002, with Milosevic facing charges for both the Bosnian War and the Kosovo War.


Shortly before the end of the trial, Milosevic died in prison from natural causes on March 11, 2006. Had he been found guilty, Milosevic would have been the first former head of state to be convicted by the International Criminal Court. The first ended up being Charles Taylor of Liberia, convicted in May 2012.


In February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Kosovo’s independence and inter-ethnic peace have been aided since 1999 by the Kosovo FORce (KFOR), which today still has 3,600 troops in the country. This has been steadily reduced from 35,000 in July 1999, of which over 5,000 were from the United States. Unfortunately, despite relative peace, tensions still exist between Serbia and Kosovo.


Lessons from the Balkan Air Wars

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An image of military boots on the ground, via LiberationNews


The success of air wars in Operation Deliberate Force and Operation Allied Force made boots on the ground less popular in subsequent military conflicts. Publicly, the two air wars were popular due to few US casualties. However, there were limits to relying solely on air power: unlike in Grenada and Panama, there were not large numbers of American civilians on the ground in Bosnia, Serbia, or Kosovo who needed rescue. The geographic closeness of the Balkans to Russia likely also dissuaded American leaders from wanting to send ground troops before peace agreements were signed, lest the Russians view the sudden presence of US combat troops as a threat.


A second lesson was to never underestimate an enemy. Although few US fighters were shot down, Serbian forces did manage to shoot down an F-117 stealth fighter by relying on sight rather than radar. In addition to using sight rather than radar, Serbian ground forces allegedly adapted quickly to be less vulnerable to NATO air power. Serbian forces also used decoys to protect their actual equipment, forcing NATO to expend extra time and resources without reducing Serbia’s military might as quickly. Nevertheless, the huge power difference between NATO and Serbia ensured that both operations would almost certainly be quick victories.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.