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.”
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.
Serbia, according to Milosevic and his clique, could not forget the crimes enacted against Serbs in Croatia a half-century before. Those horrors warranted vengeance on all Croats, including the great-grandchildren of those alive during the Ustasha period. Correspondingly, Putin smears the Ukrainians as “ideological heirs of [Ukrainian nationalist Stepan] Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.” In reality, Croatia has no anti-Jewish party or newspaper today, but was delayed in its admission to the European Union while Romania, where Jew-hatred remains a visible force, was welcomed into membership. Analogous accusations against the Ukrainian revolutionaries remain unsubstantiated.
Putin in Crimea employed “irregulars” out of uniform as a preliminary strike force, as Milosevic summoned Serbian guerrillas in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to kill and expel non-Serbian residents.
Above all, Putin disdains recollection of the events in 1987-97 in Kosovo that led to the NATO intervention. The Kosovar Albanians were thrown out of their jobs, as well as the education and health systems, by Milosevic beginning in 1989. The Kosovars pursued a campaign of nonviolent resistance until 1997, under the leadership of a conservative philosopher, Ibrahim Rugova. They organized unofficial schools and medical services, paid for by parents and patients, and kept themselves fed thanks to the hard work of peasants, most of whom had family members living in towns.
In 1997, Albanian patience ran out. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) challenged Serbian police and military tyranny. Putin lies when he says NATO intervention in Kosovo was carried out without “any permission from [Serbia’s] central authorities.” In 1998-99, the Kosovo Verification Mission and two prior iterations, subsidized by the West, attempted to settle the Kosovo disaster. The KLA went to Rambouillet in France to negotiate with Serbia. Belgrade rebuffed these efforts.
Serbia had massacred Kosovar civilians, and it continued large-scale killings. Only then, fearing a flood of refugees into Greece and Italy, did the West act on a promise made by president George H.W. Bush in 1992, when he warned Milosevic that crossing a “red line” by attacking Kosovo violently could bring about unilateral American military action. Serbia attempted the expulsion of the whole Kosovar Albanian population to neighboring Macedonia and Albania.
No Russians ever pursued a nonviolent alternative to Ukrainian governance in Crimea, and no Russians have been threatened with mass homicide by Ukrainians. Yet Putin claims impudently the right to “save” Russians in Crimea and elsewhere inside the borders of Ukraine and, it would seem, anywhere else Russians are to be found, including in the pseudo-state of Transnistria, carved away from Moldova. Agitation about local Russian grievances is already heard in Latvia, a NATO member.
There is a correlation between Russian conduct today and the Balkan wars, but it doesn’t have to do with Kosovo. Rather, it is the adventurism of Milosevic and that of Putin that are analogous, the vocabulary and political habits of both autocrats, and the threatened partition of Ukraine and that of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was made permanent by the unfortunate Dayton Accords of 1995. The leader of the “Republic of Serbs” inside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, supports Putin. At the same time, Serbian “parallel structures” like those that appeared in Crimea have pushed since 1999 to lop off northern Kosovo as a “Serbian Republic.”
Unfortunately, the most significant commonalities between Russian aggression against Ukraine and the Balkan wars are found in the venality of Western apologists for Putin, and in the debility of the West in standing up to him.
Slovenia and Croatia beat Milosevic because they had economic assets and unity that Ukraine lacks. His reverses in those countries did not discourage Milosevic from proceeding to devastate Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. We may presume Putin will repeat such a course. And finally, Ukraine loves Europe the way Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo love Europe. But the European Union, the United Nations, and the international agencies responsible for administration of these wounded lands, except for the U.S. forces in the NATO contingents, have grossly disappointed the Bosnians and Kosovars.
For both those peoples, economic life has been left unreformed, the rehabilitation of education is neglected, politics is corrupt, unemployment is steep, and the brain drain from Bosnia-Herzegovina is among the highest in the world. America and Western Europe failed the Balkan states and disregarded Georgia. Will Ukraine, even if it repels Russian aggression and grows closer to Europe, meet the same fate? If it does, Putin may have his final revenge.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.