Over the past twenty years, the Russian paratroopers’ operation has acquired many legends, films had made about it, and books had written. Although from a purely military point of view, it did not bring the expected result, and the effect of its implementation was, instead, moral.
Russia and the Russian army have not yet forgotten the bitterness of the first Chechen campaign. The attack on Pristina was able to demonstrate, to some extent, that our country has mobile units that are capable of operating very quickly.
It is difficult to explain why, but in the spring of 1999, the upper echelons of power decided to show NATO “partners” that it is too early to write off Russia. The country has its own opinion regarding the Yugoslav events. That is why the combined battalion of Russian paratroopers-peacekeepers, based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, received an order from the “top” to enter Kosovo and occupy the Slatina airport in Pristina. This airport was the only one in the area capable of receiving most types of aircraft, including military transport. In the long term, if Slatina’s occupation would lead to a conflict between Russia and NATO, Moscow planned to transfer an airborne division and military equipment to Kosovo.
True, the Kremlin forgot that the USSR days are over. It is impossible to transfer a division and even a battalion by air since Yugoslavia was surrounded from all sides by NATO countries. That situation didn’t allow Russian aircraft to fly through their airspace. And with the total air supremacy of NATO aviation, this would also be unrealistic. On the night of June 11-12, 1999, two hundred Russian peacekeepers set off on a six-hundred-kilometer march to Pristina. On the opposite side, from Macedonia, a column of British armored vehicles headed by British General Michael Jackson, commander of NATO forces in the Balkans, advanced to Pristina.
This race was won by the Russian paratroopers, who entered Pristina at two in the morning and occupied Slatina airport at seven in the morning. The British arrived at the airport four hours later and were quite surprised to see Russian armored personnel carriers and trucks on the takeoff field. The British, under the leadership of General Jackson, tried to enter the airport. Still, the paratroopers did not let them in under the threat of using weapons. A conflict was brewing, but General Jackson did not speed up events, limiting himself to encircling the airport and entering into negotiations with Russian officers. Colonel-General Viktor Zavarzin led them [the Russian officers – ed.].
It is worth noting that in the event of a conflict, the paratroopers armed with light weapons could hardly hold the airport for a long time. The main reason was that the British outnumbered them, had tanks and attack helicopters. In which case, NATO assault aircraft could come to their aid, so our peacekeepers had minimal chances of a successful confrontation with NATO troops. One could not count on help from Russia either, for the reasons described above.
General Jackson understood this correctly, so he decided to take the paratroopers by “starvation” and diplomacy. The peacekeepers soon began to run out of food and water; they had to turn to the British for the latter. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s hotheads cooled down and no longer expressed a desire to enter into confrontation with NATO. As a result of the negotiations, it was decided to leave Slatina airport under joint Russian-NATO control. In October of the same year, the airport began to send its first passenger flights. The airfield was also freely used by NATO military transport aircraft.
Hungary and Bulgaria had closed their airspace to Russian military transport aircraft. However, both countries let several planes with food and materials to equip the peacekeeping battalion in Kosovo until 2003, and Russia withdrew it.
Thus, the “attack on Pristina” did not lead to Yugoslavia and Russia’s positive results. Simultaneously, the airport’s occupation did not become a severe reason for Russia and NATO’s conflict. In those years, the West perceived President Yeltsin as a negotiable and “handshake” partner who almost always made concessions. Hence, they turned a blind eye to the Russian paratroopers in Pristina, knowing full well that the occupation of Slatina airport was just an attempt by Russia to look good in bad situations. By that time, Yugoslavia, an ally of Russia, had unconditionally lost the war with NATO. It was necessary to sweeten the bitter pill somehow. Roughly speaking, Western leaders did not take the president’s eccentricity seriously, realizing perfectly well that the situation was still developing in their favor. And so it happened later.
Simultaneously, the Russian paratroopers have something to be proud of: they carried out the order. It was not their fault that politicians nullified the march’s results. There is no doubt that if it came to an armed clash with the British, the Russian winged infantry would stand to the end and once again would immortalize Russian weapons.