A Past War Looms Over the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict
When trying to understand the situation in Ukraine, it helps to go back to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
Welcome new readers! Well over 100 of you are now subscribed to this growing newsletter of mine on contemporary history. I’m so happy and honored to have you.
If you’re reading for the first time, consider subscribing for free if you haven’t already.
Historical memory, and how past conflicts live on in later ones, is an odd thing. Much like a “beginner who learns a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue,” new crises often dress up in old clothes.1 This is especially the case in conflicts deemed existential. After all, assigning something historicity naturally gives it more weight and meaning. In few places is this fact more used and abused than in Eastern Europe. It is a region that has borne the brunt of some of the worst violence in the past century, where memories from generations long ago are reanimated with every conflict. The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War is no exception.
In my previous article The 19th Century Returns, I unpacked parts of Vladimir Putin’s 5000-word essay where he goes back centuries to justify absorbing Ukrainian identity into the all-Russian nation. But that’s not what I’d like to talk about here. Instead, another war looms over the Russo-Ukrainian one, whose memory and consequences established the precedent for today’s geopolitical crisis.
Like cousins a generation or two removed, the Yugoslav Wars are closely linked to the ongoing, tragic situation in Ukraine. This fact has escaped neither Russia nor Ukraine. For Ukraine, Croatia is a kind of fraternal inspiration, said to have engaged in a struggle against a comparable aggressor and won. On the other hand, Russia has leveraged post-Yugoslav settlements to justify its rule over Crimea, Donbas, and other breakaway areas in its orbit like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The memory of NATO’s 1999 bombing of civilian Belgrade has also allowed for the cozying of Serbia firmly into Russia’s camp, alongside appeals to a common Orthodox cultural past.
The historical memory of the Yugoslav Wars is therefore shaping the present war and how those involved view themselves. The similarities between the two wars go beyond just the legal, the cultural, and the historical—but are also about the greater question, of deciding who Europe is once again. In the 1990s, it was said that “the fate of European identity as a whole is being played out in Yugoslavia and more generally in the Balkans.”2 Similarly, President Zelensky and others have echoed that the "fate of Europe and global security [is] being decided in Ukraine.”3 Both then and now, it was thought to be an inflection point, as though a mirror was being held up to Europe.
All of this underscores why we should discuss the links between the two wars. In this article, I will be taking some time to unpack three key linkages: the impact on Ukrainian war strategy, the international precedents established, and how the present situation has revived the memory of the war in Southeast Europe again. Additionally, I will stick to writing in a matter-of-fact manner to prevent any initial misgivings from readers about my characterization of the war. You can fill in those blanks on your own.
The Croatian-Ukrainian War Link
Sometimes I like using internet comments as a general barometer to judge which way the wind is blowing. It is not scientific by any means, but it is nonetheless a worthwhile exercise. Go down the rabbit hole of Yugoslav wartime music and you will inevitably see traces of the Russo-Ukrainian War in the comments, often most-upvoted at the very top.
On every Croatian war song, the shared solidarity between Ukrainians and Croatians is easily noticeable. One of the most famous songs is Bojna Čavoglave by the band Thompson, which has become something of a meme online with millions of views. When the War in Donbas broke out in 2014, Bojna Čavoglave was reimagined as a Ukrainian song of resistance. “Not giving up Donbas to a foreigner, while we’re alive!” the lyrics proclaim with a few changes from the Croatian original.
Interesting little note, the official YouTube channel of the Croatian Defense Council’s 106th HVO Brigade, based in Orašje, Bosnia during the war, has also voiced its support for Ukraine’s Azov Regiment. Their video features the Ukrainian rendition of Bojna Čavoglave. There are many other examples of shared solidarity between the two peoples.
About the war front more concretely though, it is unclear how many Croatians have actually fought for Ukraine or are there now. Some dozens went in 2014-2015 and were later called back by the Croatian Foreign Ministry. One of the leading Azov recruiters was a Frenchman veteran of the Croatian front. In March of this year, the question flared up again when the Russian Defense Ministry claimed some “200 Croatian mercenaries had gone to fight in Ukraine.” However, it was not taken very seriously. “In Croatia, you can’t gather 200 people to protest for higher salaries, let alone something else,” one former Croatian soldier in Ukraine said. I tend to believe this number has been inflated as well.
I should also mention that, on the other side, Serbs have also been fighting for the Russian separatists in Donbas in what looks like larger numbers. The Security Service of Ukraine has claimed there are ‘hundreds’ of Serbs on the front lines, and dozens have been convicted by Serbian courts for being illegal mercenaries. Still, some have become micro-celebrities for their involvement, as reported in the video below.
Aside from actual fighters on the ground, Croatian wartime strategies have influenced Ukrainian thinking of the front. Sometime in mid-2017, as the Donbas War started to become more frozen, Ukrainian media and policymakers began to speak of the Хорватський сценарій (Croatian Scenario) as a possible way to take back the region. Inspired by 1995 Operation Storm, the proposal was to pursue a blitzkrieg push modeled on how the Croatians took back land from the Serbian rebels in Krajina. Various fmr. Croatian officials, like Vesna Škare-Ožbolt, were requested to give their advice on whether it would be possible. Ultimately, the plan fell out of favor due to human costs and unfeasibility. Now, safe to say, it is virtually impossible.
The so-called Croatian Scenario was only half of the plan, though. The other half involved actually reintegrating rebel territory into Ukraine. In September 2017, Croatian representatives put forward a model on how Ukraine could do so based on their own history, much to the anger of Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Then in December 2021, Zelensky again committed himself to the postwar Croatia model for reintegration as an inspiration.
The Ukrainians have been strongly leaning on both Croatian wartime strategy and reintegration plans as a model for their victory. Russia is a far stronger military force than Serbia, however, so implementing such plans has been mostly talk and becomes more difficult by the day. This brings us to Russia, which has also conjured up old Yugoslav War precedents to justify its aims.
If you like the piece so far, consider subscribing to follow my research and writing.
When It All Changed for Russia: NATO’s Bombing of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Precedent
In 1999, NATO unilaterally bombed Belgrade’s civilian infrastructure in a controversial campaign whose merits remain controversial at best. The purported goal was to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians who declared their independence nine years later in 2008. Kosovo was promptly recognized by most of the Western bloc and its allies. They stressed it was a special case, a sui generis, and that other regions could not unilaterally declare their independence in the same way.
These two seminal events, the NATO bombing and the Kosovo precedent, have been stuck in Putin’s thinking on geopolitics ever since. As he told journalists in 2016, “Yugoslavia… is where it all began.” For him, it demonstrated a clear double-standard. Any illusions about good faith cooperation were quashed right at the start of his presidency. The fallout from Yugoslavia effectively poisoned relations between Putin and the West before they ever truly began.
As a direct result of the 1999 NATO bombing, there was a swift turnaround in Russian military thought. In the eyes of Russia’s geopolitical strategists, the attack demonstrated that their country “no longer mattered” to the West. In less than a year after the bombings, the new National Security Concept and Military Doctrine was published. Written in plain language, the new doctrine decreed “robust conventional defense against a ‘Balkan–type’ attack by NATO.” It also now assumed the right to a nuclear first strike. In effect, NATO’s 1999 bombing marked the “end of the post-Cold War phase of international affairs” started by Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.4 The Russian military strategy for the new millennium was signed off by Vladimir Putin who was then just elected president.
If we consider 1999 to be the watershed moment in Russian geopolitical strategy, the next major one came in 2008 with the independence of Kosovo. Ever since, Russia has repeatedly evoked the so-called ‘Kosovo precedent.’ According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, some “200 territories” worldwide were now in jeopardy due to it. That same year in 2008, the precedent was put into practice and used to justify the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. As the South Ossetian president then announced:
“…[they say] that Kosovo should be recognized due to the impossibility of coexistence between Kosovo and Serbia within the same state… so we also want to announce that future coexistence between South Ossetia and Georgia within the same state is impossible.”5
All of this was merely a testing ground, however, because it was in Ukraine that the precedent took on newfound significance. In 2014, Crimean secessionists cited the Kosovo precedent before holding a referendum to join Russia. That year also coincided with the 15th anniversary of the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade. Russia made use of the opportunity with a special program titled “The Serbian Tragedy: 15 Years.” It was widely broadcast in Russia to illustrate the West’s supposed disregard for international law.
Then more recently, in April 2022, Putin again cited the Kosovo precedent while meeting with the UN Secretary-General in Moscow to argue that the republics of Donbas had the right to declare their sovereignty. The Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova has also affirmed that it, too, falls under the Kosovo precedent.
The uses and abuses of the Kosovo precedent have been the leading thorn in NATO’s side since 2008. It demonstrates how the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars colors Putin’s thinking on geopolitics. In many ways, the Russo-Ukrainian War is a rehashing of the past, a kind of geopolitical revenge against what Putin considers to be the ‘original sin.’ One can view the current Russian military action against Ukraine and the secession of its republics as a redo of 1999 and 2008, except the sides are flipped—Russia is now the one using unilateral force and leveraging the Kosovo precedent to carve out pieces of Ukraine.
Since the Yugoslav Wars ended, its historical memory has grown to take on international, pseudo-legal significance. The last linkage I would like to recount is that of old ghosts, once dormant, rearing their ugly heads again.
Ghosts from the Yugoslav Past
If you’ve followed the news or foreign policy commentary in the past two months, you may have noticed some alarmist pieces on Putin’s ‘new front’ against the West.
In late March, Foreign Policy Magazine ran with the op-ed headline, “Why NATO Should Worry About the Balkans.” Others echoed similar worries, concerned about the Russo-Ukrainian War’s spillover in emboldening separatists in Bosnia and neighboring countries. The UK Secretary of State, Liz Truss, visited Bosnia just a few weeks ago to “counter Russia’s malign influence.” She also promised a UK-backed investment in the country totaling $100M by 2025. At the time of writing, the New York Times has just published an in-depth piece titled “Bosnia on the Brink.” Clearly, the issue is garnering much press.
Southeast Europe has sadly once again become a potential geopolitical tinder box. Still, I am not going to say that some significant conflict is imminent, because it is not, at least not now. The secessionist Bosnian Serb leadership has called off a referendum that could have undermined the national courts. I have also read from everyday people that this is just the usual, cynical politicking done to force some minor concessions. The reaction from the people living in Bosnia and neighboring countries has been less alarm and more exhaustion. Few are daring enough to truly try anything reckless. That being said, politics is once again playing with fire.
Although I began this article with the fraternal links between Croatia and Ukraine, the actual picture on the ground is far more inconsistent. In an unprecedented dispute, the Croatian president and its prime minister have cut ties completely over the Russo-Ukrainian War question. Prime Minister Zoran Milanović is insistent on blocking the NATO ascension of Sweden and Finland until the Croat minority in Bosnia is given concessions. Anyone supporting the NATO ascension is a “traitor,” he told the press. In an official government press release, Croatian President Plenković accused Milanović of “using Bosnia Croats to promote a pro-Russian stance” and for being an “agent of Moscow.” Because of his comments, Milanović was placed on Ukraine’s ‘state enemy’ list. A sizable minority in Croatia undoubtedly supports him.
I mention this because the political conflict in Croatia is a microcosm of how the situation in Ukraine is unraveling Southeast Europe. In most of the ex-Yugoslav countries, there is immense pressure to ‘pick a side’—and each side comes with cultural, political, and historical baggage. Most of these sides are drawn sharply on religious lines, as is the case in Serbia, but some, like in Croatia, are not.
In Belgrade, Serbs held a number of pro-Russia demonstrations to support their larger Orthodox ally. Nonetheless, Serbia finds itself in an awkward position as a country that aspires to both join the EU and wishes to be Russia’s closest friend in Europe. Then in Montenegro, a country about to join the EU, public opinion is split with its sizable Serbian minority. Some quarter of all foreign investments come from Russia. Other states in the region, like North Macedonia, have been trying to ensure they are on the ‘good side’ of the EU in this war to secure a future ascension to the union. Lastly, Bosnia is uniquely feeling the clamp on all sides, being a multiethnic state with a breakaway Serbian region that is intent on erecting its own institutions and a Croat minority that also feels neglected.
The Russo-Ukrainian War is giving new life to these tepid post-war settlements themselves, as the region’s future is once again bound up in Europe’s balance of power. The fate of Bosnia, and the rest of the region, may very well end up being dependent on the outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war as these old, restless ghosts come back to bite.
‘History Is Back!’
Having discussed the three linkages, I would like to end with a simple idea that has stuck with me since this war started. When the invasion first began, there was some chatter in the corners of the internet that ‘history is back!’
To some people, this may sound nonsensical. Yet, if you consider what we tend to associate history with—big power competition, geopolitics, social unrest, new ideas and the like, the kind of stuff that moves history forward—then maybe the invasion was like turning a page. After all, this is an era-defining moment. The outcome is so consequential that the globalization we enjoyed for the past few decades may very well be ending.
I remember thinking the same when Donald Trump was elected. I managed to dig up an Economist article that agreed, writing in 2016 that “history is back with a vengeance.” The phrase “history is back” simply means things are moving quickly again after a prolonged stasis. It also implies that the stasis was not sustainable.
Still, I would like to amend this thinking a bit. What has really come back is history’s weight on the present. States are now operating more openly within the bounds of historical memory. Poland, having been under Russian occupation for so long, is understandably cavalier about NATO’s involvement in saving Ukraine. The same can be said for the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, both of which remember being occupied by Soviet authorities decades ago. The United States, on the other hand, is restarting the Land-Lease plan for Ukraine that was last used during World War II. Others decided to break with the past, like Switzerland, which went against its historical reputation by ending over 200 years of neutrality and sanctioning Russia. Then, of course, there is Ukraine, which is conjuring up WWII images to illustrate the seriousness of the crisis. Russia is also employing WWII imagery to argue it is “de-Nazifying” a nation.
Finally, we have the Yugoslav Wars, a historical memory thrown into this mix with unique importance. Although having an outsized role in this war and how it is conceived, we should remember that the Yugoslav Wars are one of the many historical memories being reanimated during this tragic turn of events. Brought out into the light, historical memory is being used to rationalize each state’s place in the coming new order.
Thanks so much for reading. If you enjoyed the piece, why not subscribe? It lets me know you found my writing worthwhile.
Petrović, Tanja. Mirroring Europe: Ideas of Europe and Europeanization in Balkan Societies (BRILL, 2014), 144.