Exclusively for The Geopost: Janusz Bugajski
President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is imitating that of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia. In fact, “older brother” Russia is increasingly using the “younger brother’s” methods and the results will similarly culminate in the rupture of the Russian Federation. Much like Belgrade in the 1990s, Moscow uses four main components in its attack on Ukraine: historical justifications, disinformation, territorial seizures, and ethnocide or genocide.
Serbian nationalists assert that their nation brought civilization to the Balkans similarly to Russian nationalist claims for their more extensive empire. They also believe that the Serbian Orthodox Church is the oldest in the region even though the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was established three centuries earlier and Bulgaria’s annexation of Serbia in the 10th century brough the Cyrillic alphabet and Slavic religious texts to Serbia. Similarly, Moscow has tried to appropriate the centuries older Kyivan Orthodox Church and contends that the Russian Orthodox Church represents the “Third Rome.”
The Kremlin manufactures fake narratives to discredit its victims and repeats many of the charges Belgrade levelled against Bosniaks, Croats, and Albanians. Ukrainians are depicted as Nazis, terrorists, and criminals and even accusations of organ harvesting are now trumpeted, mimicking Belgrade’s false claims against the Kosova Liberation Army and leaders of the Kosova state.
A primary Russian goal in Ukraine is territorial seizure and annexation to expand the post-Soviet Russian empire. Likewise, Belgrade’s principal objective was to capture as much territory as possible from the collapsing Yugoslavia to create a larger Serbian dominion. The pronouncement that all Serbs should live in one state is now repeated by the same assertions about Russians from Moscow.
The “Greater Serbia” project ultimately failed, but as in Ukraine it was accompanied by extensive war crimes, including mass murders, rapes, torture, expulsions, concentration camps, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, cultural eradication, and the destruction of infrastructure. Both the Russian and Serbian states essentially perpetrate genocide or ethnocide as defined by the United Nations Genocide Convention – to intentionally destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
Thus far in Russia’s war against Ukraine, there has been one notable contrast between Moscow and Belgrade. Serbian nationalists were ethnically exclusive and could not envisage turning Bosniaks, Albanians, or Croats into Serbs. However, Russian imperialist nationalism is inclusive and seeks to forcefully transform other nations into Russians while eradicating their language, culture, and history. But as this policy increasingly backfires, by turning more non-Russians against the Muscovite empire, Putin could follow Milosevic’s lead in Russia itself.
If the Kremlin deploys Russian ethno-nationalism in attempts to keep the federal state intact, this will provoke an assortment of ethno-nationalist responses across the country and contribute to extensive violence. Fanning xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments would light a fuse that Moscow would be unable to extinguish. Moscow can try to emulate Serbia in the 1990s by mobilizing ethnic Russians to carve out ethnically homogenous regions from rebellious republics while expelling non-Russian populations, but this will simply hasten state collapse.
Milosevic, just like Putin, was also charged with war crimes and indicted during Serbia’s war against Kosova. Among the specific charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia were crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, and Croatia. This included genocide, deportation, murder, persecution on political, racial, and religious grounds, inhuman acts, extermination, imprisonment, torture, and extensive destruction of property.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Putin on allegations of war crimes and specifically focused on the unlawful deportation of tens of thousands of children from Ukraine to Russia. The list of crimes will undoubtedly grow as legal action takes stock of the extensive abuses perpetrated by the Russian army in Ukraine, including the mass murder of civilians, rapes, torture, expulsions, destruction of infrastructure and property, the eradication of national and cultural heritage, and forcible Russification.
Milosevic was arrested and deported to The Hague and died in a prison cell during the course of his trial. At this point, no one in Moscow is prepared to capture and surrender Putin to the ICC. But as Russia weakens with massive military and economic losses, the opportunities for power grabs will grow and the new leaders may decide to make Putin the scapegoat for their joint crimes. Even more likely is Putin’s assassination by one of his current collaborators.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His recent book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture. His forthcoming book is titled Pivotal Poland: Europe’s Rising Strategic Player./The Geopost/