"In 1999 NATO didn't achieve its goal – the destruction of Yugoslavia's defence potential – not just in the territory of Kosovo and Metohija, but in the wider area as well. NATO's plans didn't pan out, as they expected us to capitulate and sign everything they demanded within a short space of time – three to five days.
"That didn't happen. They didn't expect the whole thing to last 78 days," former Chief of the Serbian Armed Forces General Staff Ljubiša Diković said in an exclusive interview with Kurir. The occasion for a conversation with the famous retired general was the anniversary of the end of the bombing of Yugoslavia – 9 June 1999, when he was in Kosovo – but we touched on other topics as well.
The anniversary of the end of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia is coming up. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about it?
"Memories cannot and should not fade away. Nothing should be forgotten. I remember the heroic efforts to defend the country, especially in Kosovo and Metohija. I remember the casualties, on all sides – our own, Albanian, and NATO's. It really makes you wonder if any of it was necessary. Of course it wasn't necessary, and of course it shouldn't have happened. Also, I remember the destruction of a sovereign state, without a single decision of the legitimate international institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council. Might overpowered the conventions and the accepted code of conduct. Might emerged as a way to resolve problems in international relations, and that was a defeat of diplomacy… The order that had existed and worked until that point was disrupted, with might taking the front seat in international relations. I also remember the depleted uranium, and we can see the effects all that has had on people's health."
Where exactly were you when the bombing ended? What was it like?
"I was in the Drenica region, between Srbica and Glogovac, at the command post. That's where information reached me that the Kumanovo Agreement had been signed and that the bombing was to stop. Although, that wasn't bombing, it was an act of aggression, an attack against a sovereign country… I remember very well when the KFOR forces arrived in Kosovo. I was at the junction of the Glogovac-Kormate and Priština-Peć roads, and the UK special forces were passing by. We had started to exit Kosovo and Metohija, and that's when I noticed how shocked the British were by what they saw: a force thrown out of the area, in contrast to the general opinion that 80 percent of the Yugoslavian Army in Kosovo had been destroyed. Honestly, I also saw in their eyes a fear of possible conflicts and military actions, as they couldn't enter Kosovo and Metohija, see our soldiers passing by, and not feel uncomfortable at the possibility of incidents or revenge. Of course, nothing happened."
For years we have been hearing all sorts of stories – that we had defeated NATO and made them ask for a truce; that it was an unnecessary war that we had gone into without any consideration of the consequences; that the Alliance could have razed us to the ground if it had wanted to…
"Yes, these stories about who had won and who had lost have become widespread recently. The freedom-loving world had lost the most, as had the code of conduct in international relations, the respect for the conventions… Something new burst out onto the scene, previously unheard of – now you could do whatever you wanted if you had enough power to do it."
So did NATO defeat the Serbian Army in Kosovo?
"The Serbian Army certainly didn't lose the war in Kosovo. Although there are people who claim otherwise. As a soldier, I don't feel defeated. We weren't defeated, we exited based on the Kumanovo Agreement, signed by NATO and Yugoslavia. Did we sign the capitulation? No, I don't think it was capitulation. It was an agreement which was binding for both parties. Moreover, the agreement envisaged the presence of our forces in Kosovo and Metohija, and this isn't honoured, but that's a different matter, it's something that we have seen in politics already. To conclude, I don't think Serbia was defeated by NATO in Kosovo, and I don't think that NATO was defeated by us either – the conflict was ended by means of an agreement, which at that point suited both us and the Alliance. A political decision. We withdrew our forces from Kosovo and Metohija, we weren't ousted, surrounded, or destroyed…"
How would you describe that war in general terms?
"If we make a distinction between just and unjust wars, between wars of liberation and wars of conquest, then NATO waged an unjust invasion war, while we waged a defensive war of liberation. There's a huge difference there. And if we differentiate between wars based on the means employed in waging them, it must be said that, sadly, in 1999 chemical weapons were used which were also used in both the First and Second World War. For example, in 1999 depleted uranium was deployed, and we still feel the effects today. An enormous quantity of chemical weapons can be found in global military resources and arsenals. It is used and developed because it has the greatest effects. Incidentally, its use is banned by a convention, but it has been used nonetheless, because these bans obviously carry no weight. It will be used in the future as well."
Will Serbian soldiers ever return to Kosovo?
"That is a difficult question. Yes, they will… The wheel of history keeps turning. Just like conditions obtained for the Serbian soldiers to have to leave Kosovo and Metohija, conditions will obtain for the Serbian soldiers to return to Kosovo. It would be inappropriate for me to make predictions and claims regarding when this will happen. What I'm sure about, however, is that it will happen at some point in the future."
What do you make of Kosovo today?
"Economically, it looks much worse than before the NATO aggression. In terms of security, highly risky. I haven't been to Kosovo for a long time, but I'm not sure that they live happy lives and that they are better off now than before the war. Nowadays, it is the Serbs that are at risk in Kosovo, and have been for the past 60 years."
The superpowers seem to still find the Balkans interesting and important…
"If we take a look at the history of the Balkans, and before that, the Balkan Peninsula, we can see that these are liminal spaces, boundary areas, where cultural, religious, and political borders are located… These boundary areas are fertile soil for fomenting conflicts, as there is a lot of diversity there, which can be used in accordance with the superpowers' interests. And the superpowers have never ceased to be interested in the Balkans. So, in order to achieve their interests, they come in and divide us, we get at each other's throats, and then the very people who divided us come to reconcile us. Things work for a while, and then they put us at odds with each other again, and things come full circle. It's best for us in the Balkans to sort out our own affairs, and this is why different peoples need to trust each other. We can do it, we're strong enough..."
Looking from the outside, are you happy with the state of play in the Serbian Armed Forces?
"The Serbian Armed Forces today are a well-organized, decently equipped, and very well-trained institution, capable of safeguarding the sovereignty of the Republic of Serbia and its citizens."
What do the Armed Forced need the most?
"People. That is always the case. It doesn't matter what resources are available, what's important is who uses them, and what sort of potential the people have… We demonstrated that potential during the 1999 NATO aggression, the First World War, and the Second World War. It's evident that the resources of the Serbian Armed Forces have recently been ramped up considerably, and that the military is now more powerful, especially when it comes to Air Defence. New resources have also strengthened the ground forces."
I remember that on one occasion you said that there had been offers at one point to relinquish control of our air space to a foreign military power, as well as to reduce the armed forces to protocol activities…
"Yes, that was on the table. I also remember that on another occasion General Ranko Živak, the then Air Force and Air Defence Commander, and myself as Chief of the General staff, were talking about whether it was the two of us that would bury our glorious Air Force… Fortunately, that didn't happen. Today we are the masters of our skies. It is evident that we have saved our Air Force, and it should be developed and improved further."
What is your assessment of the Serbian soldiers' financial situation?
"Members of the armed forces can be unhappy with their status to a certain extent, but they must be financially secure, and not forced to worry over making ends meet. They need to be able to align their thinking process with their duties within the defence system. It's evident that nowadays the living standard of the members of the military is better than in previous years. And five years from now that standard should be even better than today."
Lastly, you have had meetings with many general staff chiefs worldwide. However, a meeting you had with your Russian counterpart is especially interesting… Could you tell us about this meeting in greater detail?
Good cooperation with everyone
'Vučić was the best cabinet minister'
You worked under six different defence ministers during your term as Chief of the General Staff. With whom did you have the best collaboration?
"I'll take the liberty to make an assessment, risking the possibility of offending someone. All the ministers were good in their own way, and bad in their own way. I don't think that anyone did anything bad intentionally. For me, Vučić was the best, because he showed an absolute appreciation of the military professionals, respected their suggestions, and did everything he could in those difficult times for these requests to become reality, to the extent possible. When he took the helm of the Ministry of Defence, he told me that he had no intention of interfering with my decisions, that I should do my job as best I could, and that it was up to him to provide good working conditions. And that is what happened."
On an important social issue
'In favour of reintroducing military service'
Reintroducing compulsory military service – yes or no?
"That is a strategically important question, and decisions should not be taken overnight. Everything needs to be carefully considered and analysed, and then a decision should be made, regardless of whether someone likes it or not. Personally, I'm in favour of compulsory military service. Of course, it needs to be adapted to the present-day conditions, based on our own experiences and the experiences of other countries."