World War 3, or “You’re Beautiful”?

I was intrigued by this article on BBC News the other day about James Blunt‘s claims that he prevented World War 3.

In 1999, the soldier-turned-singer Blunt was a British Army officer in Kosovo at the time of the great race to Pristina airport. That summer, NATO military action had forced Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo after their role in ethnic cleansing the majority Albanian population, and a coalition of NATO troops moved in to begin what was – and still is – a long process of peace-making and rebuilding.

However, the Russians’ noses were put out by NATO’s move into Kosovo. Firstly, the Serbians were historic allies of the Russians for all sorts of political and cultural reasons, and so the Russians were always slow to condemn the actions of Serbian forces throughout the various wars that brought about Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and sceptial of any moves that might wrench Kosovo from Serbian sovereignty. Secondly, although Yugoslavia was never the closest ally of the USSR, Russia still regarded Eastern Europe as very much its back yard, as it still does today. As such, it sent troops to race into Kosovo and beat the Americans and other NATO countries to the most strategically-vital prize, the airport in Kosovo’s capital city, Pristina (see Wikipedia and other articles: 1|2|3).

As the BBC article at the top of the page describes, American orders came through to expel the Russians, using force if need be, but Blunt – backed by his commanders – refused. Instead, they gently besieged the Russians. A compromise to “police” Kosovo together was worked out between NATO and Russia, and World War 3 was averted.

It’s easy to laugh. The idea of one annoying, whining musician stopping a major war is an easy one to lampoon (imagine, for instance, if Bono claimed single-handedly to have brought peace in Northern Ireland – now that would be just ridiculous). It’s tempting to crack a joke about whether the hopeless post-apocalyptic chasm of despair that is an endless nuclear winter is worth enduring if we don’t have to put up with the dirge that is “You’re Beautiful“, and as you’d imagine The Daily Mash’s take on the story is hilarious.

But there is a serious point behind all this. Sometimes, one individual’s snap decision can be the difference between war and peace. We can thank Stanislav Petrov, for instance, for one such moment in 1983 that prevented the Cold War from turning slightly hotter than we’d all have liked.

It’s quite plausible that Blunt can claim the role that he did, because things really were on a knife-edge in Kosovo in the summer of 1999. Just a month after the race to Pristina airport, I was there myself, along with Kieran (yes, he of and bargain-basement Mediterranean cruise packages) and other students from Aberdeen University who had joined a mission to deliver aid.

At the risk of repeating part of an anecdote I tell in Up The Creek Without a Mullet, our arrival in Kosovo was early one July morning, following a tense overnight drive through Macedonia. From what I remember – sadly I took barely any notes on that trip – we had pulled over outside a house on the edge of Pristina, while a small number of us headed off to track down our local contacts. The house was large, but a shell, possibly bombed. We avoided entering, for fear of booby-traps or any other lingering explosives. As we waited, a huge column of Russian tanks and military vehicles trundled past, the writing and insignia indicating their nationality. I recall some of the soldiers were carrying flowers – inevitably presents from Kosovan Serbs.

Even then the tension was clear, and everything I saw and learned that month reaffirmed that Kosovo was very lucky in a way not to have been a flashpoint between Russia and NATO. The Balkans have been the powderkeg for too much global conflict already, and in 1999 it nearly was again.

As long as Kosovo’s future remains unclear, the potential for trouble can’t quite yet be ruled out.

And until it can, we have “You’re beautiful”.

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