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Putin Is Behaving in Ukraine Like Milosevic Did in Serbia

History repeats itself


As if the similarities between Yugoslavia and Ukraine weren’t strong enough already, Igor Girkin (now calling himself Igor Strelkov), the head of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, recently drew another sinister parallel. If Putin "betrays Novorossia"—the Russian imperial term for the Black Sea region—he might end up like Milošević, a defeated figure, internationally shunned.

Putin’s tactics in Ukraine strikingly resemble Milošević’s treatment of the so-called Greater Serbia region (the region with self-proclaimed pro-Serbian republics, partially located in modern-day Croatia) during the breakup of Yugoslavia. First, both Serbia and Russia fueled intense nationalism among Serbs and Russians against Croats and Ukrainians through mass media propaganda. Then they empowered the uprising of ethnic minorities within Croatia and Ukraine, and next, they engaged the military under a declared “need to protect minorities.” Finally, they established self-proclaimed, semi-independent republics in both Croatia and Ukraine. But the resemblance between Putin and Milošević’s cases is more than just a similarity in tactics—it embraces the fundamental myths and historical clashes between Serbs and Croats, and Russians and Ukrainians.

The story begins in the early twentieth century, when the USSR and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were established. In both cases, the metropolises of Russia and Serbia—both countries of Eastern Orthodox religion that considered themselves alternative, non-Western civilizations—imposed their rule upon the Catholic and much more pro-Western Croatia and Ukraine. Understandably, both Croatia and Ukraine resisted what they perceived as invasion, and in the 1940s, this resistance translated into substantive support for fascists in both countries. (Germans were viewed as liberators against the dominance of a foreign culture.) In Croatia, this support for independence led to the popularity of Ustaše—an organization founded by Ante Pavelić with an ideology that mixed fascism and ultra-conservatism. Likewise, in western Ukraine, Stepan Bandera, the son of a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest and a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, tried to negotiate with Hitler in order to liberate Ukraine from communist invaders. By contrast, Russia and Serbia, respectively, viewed Ukrainian and Croatian support for the Nazis as a betrayal, which they never forgot. The echo of this story is still reflected in the narratives built by Putin and Milošević around Greater Serbia and Novorossia in recent conflicts.

When both metropolises felt the threat of their former colonies escaping their influence (in the case of Croatia, directly separating from Yugoslavia; in the case of Ukraine, switching to European Union), both Putin and Milošević realized the impossibility of retaining control over all of Ukraine and Croatia. In addition, the threat of NATO engagement made direct military engagement undesirable. Thus, the metropolises chose a more sophisticated strategy: Both leaders attempted to retain only those areas with a substantive share of the ethnic Serb and Russian population (ethnicity was largely religion- and language-defined). Russia and Serbia mobilized co-ethnics in the border regions of Croatia and Ukraine that had the largest shares of Serbs and Russians. Those territories became the self-proclaimed republics of “Greater Serbia” (as it was called by the Serbs) and Novorossia in the Russian case. The newly established, self-proclaimed republics (Serbian Krajina among others) kept multiplying to allow the metropolises to retain control. (One consolidated unit would be harder to keep in check.) The false pretext of protecting minorities was used to justify Russia’s and Serbia’s engagement (sending the arms to the rebels, participating in negotiations, et cetera). In other words, an ethnic conflict was created where none existed before.

Russian and Serbian propaganda referenced the old myths of Croatian (and Ukrainian) fascists. Just as Kremlin propaganda linked Ukrainian nationalists to fascists, Milošević portrayed Croats as new version of Ustaše, the World War II fascists who threatened the existence of peaceful ethnic Serbs. In the Croatian case, the role of the horrible fascist devil—played by “Pravyi Sector” in Ukraine—was assigned to the Croatian Defense Forces (HOS), who were portrayed as hardcore Nazis by the Serbian propaganda. To personalize the link with the Nazis, the historic character Ante Pavelić was used in Croatia, just as Stepan Bandera was used in Ukraine. And both the Serbian and the Russian official narratives went as far as to deny the very existence of Croatia and Ukraine as separate nations.

Similarly, in both cases, the Orthodox Church has been used extensively by the metropolises to fuel the conflict, engaging the historical resistance between the Orthodox and Catholic traditions within those territories. The Orthodox symbolism has been used extensively by Milošević; Orthodox priests blessed weapons and were the biggest war supporters. The most notorious paramilitary group, Tigrovi, used to stop in a church on the way from Belgrade to the frontlines of Vukovar to pray. Milošević went as far as to suggest that Croats were Serbs converted to Catholicism, hence the conflict was framed in terms of Croatia choosing the evil pro-western religion. Likewise, the recent evidence suggests direct involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine through a network of pro-Russian priests. One of the paramilitary leaders turned out to be an Orthodox Church priest himself. The personal protector of Igor Girkin is Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, known to be a deeply religious Orthodox Christian. Moreover, pro-Russian separatists have been using churches, cloisters, and other religious organizations as their bases, supposedly with the consent of the ROC. 

Are those similarities in tactics and ideology between the Russian and Serbian stories just a coincidence? Or are all dictators driven by a similar logic? It is only natural for Vladimir Putin to look to the example of Yugoslavia; after all, in the last quarter-century, Milošević was arguably the only other dictator of a collapsing empire who attempted to regain control over its former territories. And let’s not forget that some of the key figures in Russia’s operation in Ukraine have extensive Serbian war experience, which they might be directly applying in Ukraine. For example, Igor Strelkov participated in the Bosnia war on the Serbian side (as a volunteer) and even published a “Serbian diary” in 1998. Strelkov is also closely linked to Russia’s state security organization, the FSB, and was acting in Crimea by the order of the Russian Federation. Some of Russia’s top officials also have extensive Yugoslavia conflict experience. Vladimir Zhirinovski is reported to be a best friend of Arkan, a notorious commander of Serbian paramilitary. Slobodan Milošević’s brother, Borislav, was an ambassador for Yugoslavia in Russia and worked closely with Russian political and business elites. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov worked in the U.N. during the Yugoslavia conflict and has an explicit knowledge of the Croatian war.

Fundamentally, however, the similarity is driven by the identity of the universes in which both Serbian and Russian leaders operate. As stressed above, both conflicts embrace the underlying myths that exist in the history of the Russia-Ukraine and Serbia-Croatia relationship. In the Kremlin’s view, Milošević’s tactics against Croatia were correct, and it was the NATO engagement that prevented him from success. The moral of the story is that the Kremlin will likely keep copying the Yugoslav scenario, but will apply subtler tactics to avoid provoking the NATO involvement. Further events will show us how far the resemblance will go. 

This piece has been updated. It mistakenly identified Stepan Bandera as an Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest, rather than the son of a Ukranian Greek-Catholic priest.