Russia’s covert support for rebels in Ukraine has transformed Europe into a battleground, for the first time in the 21st century. Yet it is in one of the last battlegrounds of Europe’s dark 20th century that Russia’s policy in Ukraine appears to have its origins. Viewed from Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), the scenes in the Donbas are hauntingly familiar. More unsettling, less than 20 years after the end of the Bosnian War (1992-1996), the lessons of that international debacle are a distant memory in Western foreign policy circles.
The similarities between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine are no mere apparition.
Moscow, however, remembers all too well. In the mushrooming ‘people’s republics,’ created by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine, as well as in the biographies of these men, we see that the similarities between BiH and Ukraine are no mere apparition. Vladimir Putin is not only copying the playbook of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, the Russian President is even employing almost the same roster of hired guns, as Srdja Pavlović recently pointed out.
Today, Moscow continues to invest in the infrastructure of mayhem, funnelling money to virtually every dissident chauvinist movement on the continent to keep its enemies, at home and abroad, constantly reeling. Because what Russia remembers (and what Europe forgets), is that geopolitical realities are what those, with the will to act, make of them. In BiH, abandoned by Brussels and Washington, Russia has found Europe’s soft underbelly.
Fighters from the 'White Wolves': a Serb Paramilitary unit containing many fighters from Russia and Ukraine.
There is a history to this strategy. During the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1999), Moscow was Belgrade’s chief foreign backer; and when the Milošević regime finally came tumbling down, his immediate family fled to Russia, as did significant numbers of Serb war criminals and high-ranking Serbian military and government brass. When Russia militarily intervened to back separatists in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and most recently Crimea, it did so by explicitly invoking the ‘Kosovo precedent.’ In fact, Moscow had already once forced a confrontation with NATO over Kosovo, with a shooting war only narrowly avoided.
Today, Moscow continues to invest in the infrastructure of mayhem.
Milošević’s legacies run deep, and tether Russia to post-war BiH. In BiH, Milošević has left a corrosive administrative legacy in the form of Republika Srpska (RS). The entity of RS comprises the ethnically cleansed territories of eastern BiH, once ravaged by his henchmen, Karadžić and Mladić; and was enshrined as a constitutive element of post-war BiH through the Western-backed Dayton Peace Agreement. Unsurprisingly, the hardline nationalist leadership of RS has received almost the entirety of its international backing since the end of the war from two places: Belgrade and Moscow.
Ratko Mladić attending a UN-organised meeting in Sarajevo, 1993. CC Mikhail Evstafiev
Milorad Dodik, the current President of RS, speaks openly of his desire to replace IMF loans with friendlier terms from Moscow, and of his admiration for the Crimean ‘referendum,’ especially as a model for what he claims to be an ‘unsustainable’ BiH state. Meanwhile, Russian tycoons are busily snatching up public works projects all over RS, even as a litany of previous schemes have flopped, and cost local taxpayers millions.
With such stories in mind, it becomes clear that Russia’s continued ‘investment’ in the RS is not to provide the basis for local modernisation and employment but rather to ensure a cheap source of raw resources for Moscow, and establish yet another useful strategic offshore satellite. For Dodik himself, widely suspected of corruption and all manner of financial misdeeds, playing the role of the Kremlin’s man in BiH is precisely the sort of larger-than-life role designed for the provincial political big man. With the prospect of Russian energy funds also becoming part of the equation, the allegiances of RS’s elite are clear.
Joint criminal enterprise
The ICTY has developed the concept of the ‘joint criminal enterprise’ to describe the campaigns of ethnic cleansing, rape, and expulsion that characterised much of the conduct of the war(s) of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. These campaigns were used to establish ethnically and politically homogenous territories, such as Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK) in Croatia, RS in BiH, the Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, and the Autonomous Province/Republic of Western Bosnia, both also in BiH. While presented by their supporters as the ‘will’ of the Serb, Croat, and Bosniak peoples respectively, in practice, these ‘republics’ were (and in the case of RS in BiH), remain the personal fiefdoms of their founders and their heirs. Dodik may have begun his career as a backbench ‘reformer’ and sometime cigarette smuggler, but he has since established a sophisticated, clientelistic power base, in the mould of his war-criminal predecessors.
These ‘national liberation’ ventures are often little more than exercises in brigandry.
The Yugoslav Wars taught us that these ‘national liberation’ ventures – while they serve the geopolitical and regional interests of their sponsors, whether Belgrade or Moscow – are on the ground often little more than exercises in brigandry. The individuals who suddenly emerge as ‘key players’ in these hotspots range from secretive intelligence officers to outright gangsters. Once on the scene, they use violence, torture, and intimidation to establish themselves as local big men, provincial warlords able to hold entire populations captive because the international community is unable, or more often, unwilling to confront them.
Only in BiH, however, has this practice been codified and institutionally cemented in the form of the RS and the wider Dayton Peace Accords. The result has been what by some measures could be referred to as the last apartheid regime in Europe.
Today, we now know that Igor Girkin (AKA Strelkov), one of the leaders of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, was a Russian volunteer in the Serb nationalist forces in BiH in the 1990s, though the extent of his participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity is unclear.
Russian commander Aleksandr Mukharev (centre) with two Serb fighters during the Bosnian wars. CC Aleksandr MukharevGirkin appears to have been in Višegrad, Hungary at the time, but other Russians participated in the Siege of Sarajevo, while Greek volunteers were present at the fall of Srebrenica. The broader ‘New Russia’ plan, both ideologically and practically, appears disturbingly similar to the Greater Serbia project attempted in Croatia, BiH, and Kosovo. The presence of Serbian ultra-nationalist volunteers in Crimea merely highlights the linkages.
Given Europe’s half-hearted response to the invasion of a neighbouring state, and the downing of civilian airliner MH17, with the killing of its nearly three hundred passengers, the Kremlin may look to BiH again as a model.
In Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, Russia has already established para-state satellites.
In Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, Russia has already established para-state satellites, but the real prize would be an internationally recognised autonomy within a sovereign state, as the RS enjoys in BiH. Such a ‘settlement’ in Ukraine, as in BiH, would almost certainly mean that the country’s prospects of joining Euro-Atlantic bodies, especially NATO, would be virtually zero. After all, the Atlantic organisation could not allow itself to be compromised by the admission of a member state so deeply infiltrated by one of its primary geopolitical antagonists.
We can foresee this situation because it is precisely this sort of infiltration – aside from BiH’s own political oligarchs’ complete lack of interest in substantive reform – that is likely to keep that country on the margins of Euro-Atlantic integration for the foreseeable future as well. This, in itself, is reward enough for Moscow’s efforts: the creation of Kremlin-friendly para-states on the borders of the EU, strategically corrupt satellites able to, when necessary, disrupt the continent as a whole. For the tiny elite in Banja Luka, which consists primarily of the Dodik clan, the benefits of playing Russia’s western-most appendage are self-evident.
Fending for themselves
No part of this progression of events should come as a shock to either Washington or Brussels. Yet we are already months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the individual member states of the EU are only now beginning to impose meaningful sanctions against Moscow. Two decades after Europe’s disastrous no-policy response to the carnage in BiH, Ukraine is paying the price for the EU’s perpetual lack of a coherent foreign policy, and Washington’s withdrawal from Europe. So, what now?
With luck and with determined effort, Kyiv may still be able to retake its secessionist territories to the east. In BiH, where the story has progressed further, matters are worse; and paint a grim picture of Ukraine’s future if Russia’s agents are not decisively defeated. As BiH struggles to recover from renewed flooding, and suffers through the maelstrom of another vicious election cycle, the US embassy’s official line in Sarajevo appears to be that there is a ‘lack of consensus’ about what Europe and Washington can do for BiH. Meanwhile, Serbia, the RS’s creator (and primary backer), recently gained EU candidate status, a development that could threaten BiH’s future, as Marko Attila Hoare recently argued.
The February protests and plenums in BiH should have crystallised, once and for all, the West’s supposed commitment to genuine democracy in the country. Instead, what became clear is that BiH, Ukraine, and all those committed to genuine democratic reform in countries that exist in the shadows of authoritarianism, will be largely left to fend for themselves.
Standfirst image: CC Queerbubbles