The Magazine

Balkan Lessons

Only Putin learned them.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Vladimir Putin learned lessons from the Balkan wars of the 1990s that the rest of the world ignored or has forgotten. He invokes an obviously false parallel between the NATO bombing of Serbia and liberation of Kosovo in 1999, and his own annexation of Crimea. In his speech of March 18, Putin sought to justify the Crimean “referendum” for unification with Russia on “the well-known Kosovo precedent—a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.”

Newly identified remains from the 1995 massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia

Newly identified remains from the 1995 massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia, July 2013


Numerous Western commentators have refuted the alleged similarity between the seizure of Crimea and the separation of Kosovo from Serbia. But there is a wider context to Putin’s use of the Balkan bloodshed. 

First, Putin has taken from the Balkan wars an understanding that the West is easily distracted and neglectful of details. Especially after September 11, 2001, when Balkan Muslims, particularly Albanian Muslims, rallied to the side of the United States, the Balkans were relegated to their usual secondary or even irrelevant status in global affairs. 

Having ripped apart Yugoslavia, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and undermined the regional transition away from communism—a process a reformed Yugoslavia could have led—Serbian demagogue Slobodan Milosevic was consigned to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, where he died in 2006, unrepentant and unpunished. At The Hague, the West sought “closure” from the Balkan wars.

Nobody, it seemed, imagined that the events between 1991 and 2000 in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia foretold a pattern to be followed by Moscow, the enabler of Serbia, in years to come. When Russia invaded and partitioned Georgia in 2008, no one mentioned the failed division of Croatia and the successful split of Bosnia-Herzegovina between a “Republic of Serbs” and a “Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina” grouping Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

Putin’s education from the Balkan wars may extend further. He apparently remembers what others choose not to recall: that the West did not aid Slovenia militarily, although the Slovenes defended themselves successfully; that Croatia was provided only with sub-rosa military assistance during its struggle; that Bill Clinton hesitated for three years, from 1992 to 1995, before acting in Bosnia-Herzegovina; that a vast crowd of Western media and political apologists recycled Serbian propaganda throughout the Balkan wars; that foreign political and military officials on the ground were prone to sympathize with the Serbs, allowing their atrocities to proceed unchecked.

The ignominy of the West in the Balkans was epitomized by the acquiescence of Dutch “peacekeepers” to the Serbian detention and massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1995. Srebrenica today remains under Serbian control. Srebrenica was a “teachable moment,” but only the Russians appear to have studied it. 

Although wholesale slaughter has not occurred so far, Putin has otherwise followed the Serbian manual in his assault on Ukraine. At the end of March, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov pressed a demand to the increasingly feckless John Kerry that Ukraine be forced to “federalize,” meaning that it be compelled to accept partition of its territory, and that it establish the Russian language as a second official idiom alongside Ukrainian.

This strategy, including the occupation of Crimea, replicates exactly the proclamation of Serbian “border republics” within the historic lands of Croatia beginning in 1991. So does the hysterical agitation over the status of the Russian language. In Croatia, Serbs alleged that they were victims of Croatian discrimination against the Serbian dialect of the language once called “Serbo-Croatian” because of its mutual intelligibility, and now called “Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian.” 

In addition, Milosevic, like Putin on Ukraine, branded the Croatian Republic proclaimed in 1991 a nest of Jew-hating fascists, bent on massacring Serbs and reviving the Axis-aligned Ustasha regime that ruled during World War II. On March 18, Putin said, “those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine .  .  . resorted to terror, murder, and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.” Lavrov has insisted to Kerry that Ukraine must “disarm irregular forces and provocateurs.” These are the constant themes of Russian propaganda.

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