Canada and the Kosovo Crisis: Looking back, 20 years on

Canada played a central role in the end of the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Michael W. Manulak looks back to understand how strategic positioning within diplomatic networks — when backed by the right military capabilities — brings influence.

By: /
June 6, 2019
A youth cycles past the memorial to the victims of the Recak massacre, where 45 ethnic Albanians were killed by Serbian forces in January 1999, in the Recak village, Kosovo. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

In the spring of 1999, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) prepared to celebrate its 50th anniversary, a brutal conflict was unfolding in Kosovo. Reports of ethnic violence and bloody massacres circulated, reviving memories of Rwanda and Srebrenica.

That March, a NATO-led bombing campaign was launched to halt Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. Weeks in, however, the campaign — which many had expected to last a few days — had delivered no results and no end was in sight. Media attention, which to that point had focused on Yugoslav atrocities, began to turn to the collateral damage being wrought by NATO’s air campaign.

With the Atlantic alliance showing visible cracks and a destabilizing refugee crisis building in the Balkans, Canada took an active part in the Group of Eight (G8) diplomacy that precipitated a settlement to the conflict. Canada’s central role, little known at the time, holds important lessons now, as the world marks 20 years since the end of the war on June 10.

Despite a progressive intensification of bombing, NATO’s air forces, including Canada’s 18 CF-18s, were incapable of bringing the Yugoslav president to heel. Questions concerning the need to introduce ground troops into the region began to be asked more urgently, not least because of the toll that the conflict was taking on civilians.

The campaign also raised questions about the role of forceful, military means in Canada’s human security agenda. In the years preceding the Kosovo crisis, Canada had sponsored a less state-centric, more “person-centred” approach to foreign relations. Canada’s foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, had spearheaded the Ottawa process to ban anti-personnel landmines, played a lead role in the formation of the International Criminal Court, and supported the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect norm. It was in large part on this basis that Canada had been elected to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, a body that had been sidelined during the crisis. As NATO’s bombs continued to fall with inevitable human consequences, some questioned the consistency of the campaign with Canada’s global policy agenda.

Yet backtracking in the face of Yugoslav intransigence would have disastrous consequence for Kosovar civilians and for NATO’s credibility. The stubborn conflict risked dividing the 50-year-old alliance and threatened regional stability. Ongoing conflict was also damaging for the UN.

Kosovo 1
An Albanian woman spins wool outside Tirana's airbase on May 12, 1999. The airbase played a crucial role in NATO's humanitarian mission. Reuters

A diplomatic breakthrough was sorely needed. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Ottawa sought to play a constructive role in precipitating an end to the crisis by helping to bring Russian pressure to bear on Yugoslavia. What was needed was a means to close the gap between key NATO allies and Russia. An opening presented itself in April 1999. Looking to cement its position within the G8, Russia was keen to use that forum to pursue a resolution to the crisis. Germany, then G8 chair and thus pivotal in any G8 process, obliged. Canadian officials, for their part, sought to make the most of the potential opening.

Canada had gained diplomatic credit in Moscow for its position on NATO nuclear issues and Axworthy had developed a solid rapport with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Canadian officials recognized the diplomatic space opened up by the fact that Russia had a greater interest in cementing G8 membership than in backstopping Serb interests in Kosovo. Canadian efforts were aided also by the strong links that Canada’s G8 political director (and recent ambassador to Germany), Paul Heinbecker, had in Germany’s foreign ministry.

Following an April meeting of political directors in Dresden, G8 foreign ministers met in early May and agreed to “General Principles” for a settlement. There had been three main groupings at the meetings: the United States, Russia, and Germany/France. With an impasse likely and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright openly doubtful of the utility of the G8 as a forum for such negotiations, Canada’s foreign minister went to work as a bridge between these positions. As Heinbecker and Robert McRae, then Canada’s deputy permanent representative to NATO, recount, Axworthy devised and sponsored compromise language that satisfied all parties on the composition of “international civil and security presences.”

Agreement at the G8 table, which represented the first time that Russia had aligned itself with key NATO allies throughout the crisis, sent an unmistakable signal to Belgrade. The G8 text formed a basis for negotiations between Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, and Milošević. It took some time and tough bargaining, but Yugoslavia accepted the terms of agreement on June 3.

Canada in Kosovo
A Canadian aircraft is refuelled over the Atlantic Ocean as it returns from the NATO base in Aviano, following Canada's decision to end its two year contribution to NATO's peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans. CREDIT REUTERS/Capt. Patrick Pelletier/DND)

Emphasis turned quickly to negotiating a UN Security Council resolution that would formalize the still fragile peace plan. Negotiations recommenced among G8 political directors with Canada, again, active in talks. Discussions took on added urgency when US-Russian-Yugoslav bargaining over a military technical agreement went badly. In response, the US advocated for an escalation of bombing.

Fearing that renewed bombing would threaten the agreement that had been forged, Canadian officials sought to bring about a speedy conclusion to negotiations on the UN resolution. At the G8 foreign ministers meetings from June 7-9, Ivanov came armed with 20 objections to the text drafted by political directors. Canada positioned itself, recalled Axworthy, as a “middleman in drafting an acceptable compromise, conveying to the Security Council the need to have a resolution enacted immediately and at the same time getting the message to Milošević that this was a unified position.”

After extensive talks, agreement was reached — with perfunctory adjustments in New York — on the text of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. In addition to cementing agreement and bringing the immediate crisis to an end, Canada insisted on language that ensured that the resulting international security presence in Kosovo would cooperate fully with the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Lessons from the crisis

As violence erupted in Kosovo, Canada played a central role in helping to precipitate an end to the crisis, all the while protecting and promoting its own national interests. Its influence in the big leagues of crisis diplomacy was owed in large part to its strategic positioning within key actor networks.

Axworthy Kosovo
Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy stands under a Canadian flag outside the newly opened Canadian office in Pristina, November 17, 2009. Hazir Reka / Reuters

As sponsor of an ambitious human security agenda in the late 1990s, Canada had forged productive ties with a diverse array of players that increased its ability to act as a bridging force among G8 countries. Strong links in Moscow and Berlin, not to mention its credibility outside the G8 on international humanitarian questions, added significant weight to Canada’s diplomatic engagement.

While these connections were essential, no links were as important as those with the United States. While Canada’s diplomatic aims diverged from those of its southern neighbour at key points in the crisis, Canada had made a major contribution to the air campaign and this brought credibility in Washington. Canada’s armed forces had delivered the goods in Kosovo, with Canada leading 10 percent of NATO strike missions. Diplomatically, Canada had pushed reluctant allies to respond forcefully to Yugoslav atrocities, a stance that was given added weight by Canada’s humanitarian credentials.

There was, therefore, a self-reinforcing quality to Canada’s engagement that holds lessons for current policy makers. Canada’s highly connected position within actor networks increased Canada’s sway with the United States, and knowledge that Canada’s voice carried weight in Washington reinforced Canada’s influence with other countries. A neglect of either side of the equation would have limited Canada’s impact.

In today’s fractious and dynamic international security environment, the need to build and maintain a wide array of linkages with international partners is more important than ever. The implementation of a similarly networked diplomatic approach, executed implicitly in the late 1990s, is essential today. At the same time, given that Canada’s ability to protect its national interests in Kosovo was rooted in its capacity to bring the right military assets to the table, the crisis also serves as a reminder of the importance of a well-equipped Canadian Armed Forces for Canada’s international policy aims.