During NATO's aggression, the Yugoslav ground forces consisted of three armies. The First army defended the central and northern parts of Serbia, the Second army, based in Podgorica, controlled the western part of Serbia and all areas of Montenegro, and the Third army, with headquarters in Nis, operated in the southern part of Serbia, including Kosovo and Metohija. The Third army, led by its legendary commander, General Nebojša Pavković, bore the brunt of the enemy attacks during the aggression. General Pavkovic was the chief strategist of military operations in the part of Serbia that came under particularly heavy bombardments from the air, attacks from Albania, and raids from Albanian terrorists.
The Third army heroically survived all the trials of the war with miniscule losses in personnel and hardware and did not let a single NATO solider penetrate into Kosovo or Metohija.
By decision of Western states, first of all, the United States, and with the support of the puppetlike pro-American authorities in Serbia in the early 2000s, the entire leadership of Yugoslavia was brought before the Hague Tribunal. Among them was the legendary General Pavkovic, who, according to many analysts and lawyers, was unfairly sentenced to 22 years in prison.
General Pavkovic, who is serving his 22-year sentence in a Finnish prison, answered several questions for “International Affairs”.
General Nebojsa Pavkovic:
I must say that it was an honor to be in command of this army, of all its units, of all the officers and soldiers, who demonstrated remarkable courage in the struggle against the aggressor. It is true that at that time we all witnessed the collapse of international law and our country was attacked, for no reason, by the most powerful military alliance in the world, which included 19 world powers. Did NATO need to use such crushing power against our small country and its army? I don’t know.
However, it turned out that no matter how powerful those forces were, they could not achieve what they wanted. For that reason, the then Yugoslav army and the Third Army I have spoken about succeeded in defending their country in the most dignified manner and were able to prevent the invasion of NATO ground forces.
Thus, we saw our task through. How did we manage it? Firstly, the Third Army, which I commanded, was an unusual strategic group consisting of elite units that were part of the Yugoslav army — the Pristina Corps, the Nishka Corps, and other independent army units. The Army was also reinforced by subunits from other armies, primarily the 252nd armored brigade of the 1st army, the 37th motorized brigade from the 2nd army, the 72nd and 63rd brigades from the special task corps.
In this way, all those units which were under my command were, according to my plan, were to take measures to guarantee protection against air strikes in order to hold out under air bombardments and avert significant losses in the first ten days. And then, in the event of an attack by land forces at the border, to put up resistance.
According to our estimates, the aggressor planned to dispatch their ground forces from Macedonia in the Vardar-Moravian direction, along Skopje-Kumanovo-Vranje, towards the city of Niš, and simultaneously strike with auxiliary forces from the territory of Albania in Kosovo. The goal was to enter Bujanovac and Koncul village at an early date with a view to shift the focus of hostilities to eastern Kosovo, and then as quickly as possible break into the city of Pristina. They would thus have managed to join forces with extra units attacking from Albania. In the course of such an attack, the aggressor, using tactical and operational assault forces, primarily in the area of Malo Kosovo and in the Leskovac basin, would have sought to capture key areas and occupy the territory of Kosovo. The target of the attack was Kosovo.
The units of the Third Army, thanks to their heroism, managed in 78 days to prevent all attempts by the aggressor to penetrate the territory of Kosovo. I especially want to mention military operations that took place at Koshare frontier from April 10 until the end of the aggression, until the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement. Also significant were operations at Mount Pastrik, from May 26 to June 16. The battles in question warded off attacks by aggressor units, first of all NATO forces, units of the regular Albanian army and Albanian terrorist units which were ordered to penetrate from Albania into Kosovo, capture the first defense zone of the Third Army and prepare the ground for the occupation of the region.
However, the aggressor suffered a fiasco. Despite the fact that the occupying force was backed by strategic aviation, front-line aviation and artillery from Albania, our divisions managed to defend Kosovo, thanks to skillful command, and, of course, excellent training of soldiers and officers. All our units met their targets, and until the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement on June 9, we kept NATO forces out of Kosovo.
International Affairs: You helped the Russian detachment SFOR arrive at Slatina Airport in Pristina from neighboring Bosnia. How did this happen?
First of all, information about the arrival of a Russian division in Serbia came unexpected for me, but fairly soon I was ordered by the leadership to arrange the arrival of the Russian servicemen and transport them to Kosovo at any cost. We did not know the schedule of this unit, but, assessing the situation, I suggested to Chief Commander Slobodan Milosevic that the unit should be stationed at Slatina Airport. At that time, Slatina Airport was under our full control, housing parts of the 15th armored brigade under the command of Colonel Mladen Chirkovic. The airport was the right choice also because there were no massive attacks from the terrorists.
It was a time when units of the 3rd Army and the Pristina Corps, after signing the Kumanovo Agreement, had begun to withdraw from Kosovo and when UN peacekeeping contingents began to arrive in Kosovo. The biggest problem was arrange the passage of the unit from Niš to the center of Pristina and further to the airport because all the roads were packed with our units returning from Kosovo and Metohija and a large number of civilians who retreating with our columns. On top of that, it was rainy and foggy. Our military police units met the Russian convoy near Niš and escorted it to the center of Pristina after midnight on 12 June. Here the Russians were met by several thousand Serbs, were then given a traditionally warm welcome, offered drinks and food. Shortly thereafter, in agreement with General Zavarzin, the commander of this unit, we escorted them to Slatina Airport, where they were deployed with the help of the Yugoslav Army at key locations. They were then left to rest, their resources were replenished, they were provided with everything they needed.
Their march resembled an act of heroism because I do not know under what circumstances they left Bosnia and from which position. But I know that when they arrived at the airport, they did not have a drop of fuel in their tanks. However, their appearance in Kosovo, Pristina and at the airport itself came as a great relief for the people of Serbia, who gave them a hearty welcome. For us, their arrival came as a great moral support and encouragement - such a unit in the heart of Kosovo, at the airport which was of special importance for NATO.
The airport sustained certain damage during the aggression, but its runway hadn’t been damaged much, so it could be repaired very quickly and would make a good choice for NATO troops arriving by air. However, the appearance of this Russian military unit disrupted the plans. Here I would like to emphasize that the commander of the detachment, Viktor Zavarzin, faced a huge dilemma as, according to our estimates, he was under pressure from Moscow to immediately leave the territory of Kosovo and return. However, in a conversation with our generals and other Serbs he dismissed all these assumptions, stayed on at the airport, organized the defense, and his presence took NATO by surprise.
As far as we know, the then NATO Commander Wesley Clark ordered General Jackson, the commander of the UN peacekeeping forces, to capture the airport at any cost, knock the Russians out of there, using weapons if necessary. Of course, they would not have succeeded, because we still had enough armored and other military units to back the Russian contingent. However, Jackson soon realized that this could mark the beginning of a Third World War.
Shortly afterwards, the Russian contingent began to experience strong pressure, perhaps the policy was to account for this as well but whatever the reason, the powers of Russia and NATO at the airport became separated. The Russian contingent remained there for some time, and then it was actually divided within the framework of other UN contingents. Thus, their role lost value, as they had had no time to obtain their own area of responsibility as a special contingent, which we found very disapponting. But I would like to point out that the great and powerful message was addressed, first of all, to NATO, and then to our country that the Russians were willing to support us.
“International Affairs”: There has been the premiere of a new film with the participation of Serbian actor Miloš Bikovic “The Balkan Frontier” about Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo. Quite recently, in an interview with the weekly magazine Nedelnik, Bikovic said that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him that he somehow was involved in this.
Nebojsa Pavkovic: I read this interview with Bikovic, where he explains from the artistic point of view how this film came into being and what it will show. At the Slatina airport there were no major clashes, as they like to demonstrate in the movies. Our troops until the arrival of the Russians completely controlled the airport and everything around it. Of course, if there had been a conflict with terrorists, it would have ended differently. And when it comes to the role of Russia at that time, we all know that there were obstructions from its political top. The only exception is the current president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, at that time he was secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, and he then reacted several times.
I even mentioned it in my book, in the caption to his photo, that he demanded disarmament of militants of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), because the KLA threatened Russian servicemen with attacks if they did not leave Kosovo. Putin insisted on this demanding that KLA militants lay down weapons, as was provided by the Kumanovo Agreement. It was thanks to him and the head of the International Military Cooperation Department of the Russian Ministry of Defense, General Leonid Ivashov, that Russia changed its opinion as to what assistance should be rendered to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
International Affairs: The Federation Council of the Russian Federation announced yesterday, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the aggression, that NATO poses a serious threat to the whole world. It said in its Declaration that the perpetrators of this crime should be held to account because the impunity of NATO leaders led to new tragedies in Iraq, Libya and Syria. However, it was you who was punished for defending your country against the aggressor, and the real criminals went unpunished. In your opinion, is there a law for their punishment today, since there has not been such a mechanism for 20 years?
Nebojsa Pavkovic: If you are interested in my opinion, I will tell you that such a mechanism does not exist, and in the foreseeable future it will not be possible to create such a mechanism that will judge not only NATO, but also those responsible for all previous events in Africa, Iraq, Libya, etc. However, it is good that the Russian parliament has adopted such a statement - for the first time one state so openly condemns and assesses the participation of NATO in the attack on Yugoslavia and Serbia.
The same model they used to attack us they then used to attack other countries, and who knows what more might happen in the future. It is therefore good to hear words about it, especially from the Russian parliament, who has made such a statement.
Lieutenant-Colonel Nebojsa Pavkovic, after the NATO aggression, was made Colonel-General, and until 2002 held the post of Chief of the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army. In addition to many Serbian and foreign state and civil awards, in 1999 he was awarded the Order for Military Merit of the Russian Federation.