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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strikes Boost Milosevic in Army's Eyes

WASHINGTON -- The NATO bombing that was intended to cripple and demoralize Slobodan Milosevic's military machine has instead invigorated the Yugoslav army and has helped him heal his long-poisoned relationship with the officers corps, according to American and NATO officials.

These senior military and intelligence officials said that more than five weeks of bombing has rallied the Yugoslav army to the defense of its country, sharply increased the willingness of recruits to serve in the military and given senior army officers a mission that they finally feel is legitimate.

Milosevic's relationship with senior army officers had been soured by a decade of distrust and purges, delayed pay checks and prosecutions for treason. The bombing has finally provided those officers and the Yugoslav leader with a common enemy: NATO.

"The 'rally-round-the flag' effect in Serbia has been profound," said a government official who has been studying the Balkans for a decade and attributes the change in army morale to the NATO bombing. "It is not Slobo's war, it is the army defending the country."

Despite public assertions that the bombing is going well, intelligence reports provide a far less sanguine assessment of NATO's war in the Balkans. Longtime observers of Yugoslavia in the U.S. government said in a series of interviews that the Yugoslav army in Kosovo has escaped crippling materiel damage and significant casualties by dispersing its units well before bombs began to demolish their bases, barracks and fuel depots.

NATO's campaign has also had the unwanted consequence of helping to restore the Yugoslav army to the respected position it enjoyed before the violent collapse of the Yugoslav federation began in 1991. Then, the army was the primary glue holding Marshal Tito's multinational union together. As such, it was systematically weakened and humiliated by Milosevic to suit his nationalist ends f until NATO's bombing changed his defense needs.

The campaign has had only "a marginal effect" in diminishing the capacity of Yugoslav forces to force ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo or carry out attacks against Kosovo Liberation Army insurgents, one official said.

NATO's supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark, insisted this week that the bombing had hobbled Yugoslav air defenses and was wearing away the resources of Milosevic's military. But Clark also acknowledged that despite the bombing, "you might actually find out that he's strengthened his forces in there.''

U.S. officials went considerably further this week. They characterized as "greatly exaggerated" claims by Western leaders and NATO commanders that the bombing has damaged the morale of the Yugoslav army and hampered Milosevic's ability to conscript troops.

Inside Serbia, since the bombing began, the army's image in the eyes of the Serb people seems to have soared, mostly noticeably in the capital, Belgrade. There, where many residents had lost respect for the military because of its failures in unpopular ethnic conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia, the army is now regarded as the defender of the nation.

"Yugoslav males did not want to get sucked into the fights in Croatia or Bosnia," said a U.S. military official who has long experience in the region. "But indications are that young men are responding to the draft now and in significantly higher numbers than in the past. After five weeks of bombing in Kosovo, they are saying to themselves, 'Gosh, we are still standing.' It is easy to march to the drum if you don't think you are going to get killed."

NATO and Pentagon commanders maintain that the air war is slowly but steadily taking the Yugoslav military apart. They say the air force has been disabled and essentially grounded, especially after recent strikes against aircraft discovered at an airfield in Montenegro. They concede that Yugoslavia's army is holding up relatively well so far, but vow that the intensifying campaign will grind away its forces and their morale.

"If they're not feeling it yet to the full extent, they will in time," said a senior U.S. military officer. "These are hearty people. They're used to a certain amount of suffering. You're not going to crush their morale in 30 days. They're going to have feel some real pain before they collapse."