by Stephen Karganovic
Similarities in the way the Western coalition is handling the Ukrainian crisis that it engendered and brought to the point of savage conflict and the strategies that the same actors pursued in the nineties to lay the foundations for a brutal civil war and stoke the conflict resulting in the destruction of the Former Yugoslavia are being closely analyzed by Russian experts. Reasons for such close attention abound. For one thing, whenever your unimaginative (or excessively arrogant) opponent repeatedly acts by following a set matrix that gives you a significant strategic advantage. It enables you, within broad limits, to anticipate his moves and to devise effective countermeasures.
While the hubris of Western strategists undoubtedly makes the job of opposing their designs easier, it is nevertheless important, no matter how striking the analogies may be, to carefully outline the major similarities as well as differences in the situations being compared so as not to fall into the trap of fighting the last war, instead of the one at hand.
1. Ethnic and religious fragmentation. Identification of exploitable social tensions and their systematic exacerbation to serve as the detonators of the planned crisis. That means estrangement of constitutive communities from each other, with emphasis on what separates them while downplaying what they have in common.
In Yugoslavia, this process started being implemented long before the visible outbreak of the crisis by engineering new ethnic identities (Muslim, Montenegrin, Macedonian) and encouraging separatist aspirations within the existing ones (Croats, Slovenians). The Ukrainian identity also is an artificial construct which defines itself not in positive terms but primarily in militant contrast to the Russian. In the Ukraine, as in Yugoslavia, Catholic/Orthodox religious cleavages are eagerly exploited to exacerbate existing animosities.
2. Manufacturing illusory material inducements to foster politically desired conduct.
In the former Yugoslavia, which by the late 80s had a decent standard of living, the prospect of an even more prosperous life that would presumably follow upon the dissolution of the socialist state was used as a bait to motivate separatist tendencies. The Catholic west was promised increased prosperity by opting out and making a “civilizational choice” (almost the same phrase that later was launched in the Ukraine) in favor of joining the neighboring Western-block countries. Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo were promised benefits through alignment with rich Islamic countries. In the Ukraine, the illusion of quick incorporation into the European Union was conjured. The majority of the people in western and central Ukraine who responded positively to this false prospect were quite unaware of the real economic and social conditions and, more importantly, trends in the EU and acted on unfounded assumptions.
3. Control of information flow in targeted countries in order to mold mass perceptions and conduct.
In the former Yugoslavia, penetration of media space by Western- affiliated interests, spearheaded by Soros, began as soon as political liberalization in the late 80s made it possible. By the early 90s, as the conflict was being actively stoked from abroad, large segments of the local media in all Yugoslav republics were already under the sway of Western owners. A similar softening up process in the media sphere went on in the Ukraine during the last two decades, with all the major media outlets under the firm control of Western-backed oligarchs. They were propagating an almost uniform and factually false narrative about the benefits that would follow political alignment with NATO and EU and estrangement from Russia.
4. In both the Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia a core element of the population insisted on sticking to its own narrative. They radically rejected the false perceptions that were being encouraged as a prelude to accepting Western-arranged political recomposition. In the Ukraine it was the Russian-speaking East, in Yugoslavia the Serbs.
The refusal of these groups to peacefully accept the loss of their cultural identity and political autonomy led to conflict in both cases. The question that begs a clear answer is whether armed conflict (while being basically foreseeable) was also an intended consequence of the processes that were set in motion. In the case of the Ukraine that is rather doubtful because unequivocal pro-Western realignment of the entire country within the NATO/EU block, under the command of a subservient central authority in Kiev, rather than outright political fragmentation, clearly was the intention of the instigators of regime change. In the case of Yugoslavia, it is possible to argue that a conflict ending in the Serbs’ military defeat definitely was part of the plan, but it may be that a much quicker and more successful campaign was originally envisioned. As it turned out, by giving free reign to their Croat and Muslim protégés the instigators of the Yugoslav crisis may have inadvertently created a clear existential threat to Serbs, dispersed throughout the former Yugoslavia, that greatly stiffened their resistance and prolonged the conflict beyond what was originally envisioned. Besides, that may have led to another unintended consequence: serious questioning, in Russia, of the Yeltsin alliance (albeit as a junior partner) with the West. That came to a head around the time of the Kosovo war, resulting in the rise of Putin and his political vision in reaction to it.
In the Ukraine, whatever may have been the original design (probably leaning only toward cultural fragmentation while preserving the country’s overall political integrity, albeit with the more reliable western element subjugating the untrustworthy east of the country) it seems to have collapsed once unrestrained force was applied in the subjugation process. As informed analysts have pointed out, power sharing compromises between Kiev and the Russian-speaking East that may have been possible two or three months ago no longer are after the mayhem and destruction wrought by junta forces. A situation is rapidly developing in which regions with a mainly Russian cultural identification are becoming adamant in their refusal to have anything to do with Kiev, whatever the details of the proposed arrangement. In that sense, a stark analogy to the spirit of unyielding resistance which actuated Bosnian and Croatian Serbs in the Yugoslav conflict is now shaping up in the Ukraine. It is conceivable in both cases that a subtler and more flexible initial approach by Western-backed players in relation to the Serbian and Russian population they desired to reduce to their domination would have been more effective in thwarting the radicalization of the resistance. And it may actually have been successful because in both cases initially at least the resistors clearly had no intention of resorting to force.
5. The West has no qualms about using the most unsavory available elements as instruments to execute its designs. In Bosnia the West’s devil’s pact with Iran (shades of Iran-Contra) and other more or less fundamentalist Islamic actors in order to strengthen local Muslim forces responsive to NATO/EC interests and fighting for control over the entire country has been amply documented. To some extent, participation of extreme European right-wing elements in the war effort on the side of the rightist Tudjman regime in Croatia was also tolerated. A similar pattern can be seen in the Middle East, with radical Islamist factions being instrumentalized to undermine secular regimes deemed unfriendly to the West.
In the Ukraine the devil’s pact apparently was made with some of the most odious local fascist elements, literally collaborationist relics from the World War II period. Their task was to provide the mailed fist with which Western-backed oligarchs and politicians in Kiev would demolish their opponents and consolidate their rule. The calculus in both the Yugoslav and Ukrainian situations seems to have been “we’ll use them to get rid of the main opponent now, and we’ll deal with them later.” The possibility that Frankensteins were being created who would not be amenable to dissolution once their usefulness has ended does not seem to have crossed the minds of the creators. The postwar implantation of radical Islam in Bosnia, where previously it had never existed, and the consolidation of a strong and growing fascist undercurrent in Croatia is proof enough of that. As for the Nazi-inspired movements and militias in the Ukraine there seems to be no clear plan how to bring them to heel once the conflict is over and they presumably have served their purpose.
In both the Former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine, the instruments the West amorally employed to achieve its limited objectives have planted the seeds of long term instability and show no disposition of remaining subservient to their creators in the long term. For Russia that presents a serious challenge in the Ukraine as the evil seed planted by the West’s opportunistic meddling bears bitter fruit. It will undoubtedly hamper the eventual full integration of the Ukraine within the bounds of even the most loosely defined concept of the “Russian world” as envisioned by Russia’s current policy.
6. Surreptitious support for the West’s favorites while publically proclaiming a hands-off policy which in practice applies only to others. Another significant similarity is that in both crises the West has initiated embargoes on arms and logistical supplies to the warring sides but sidesteps them regularly in favor of its local clients. Voluminous evidence assembled after the nineties leaves no doubt that Muslim and Croat forces in Yugoslavia were recipients of generous quantities of arms and training, and later invaluable logistical assistance as well, while Belgrade was being criticized regularly for any support extended to its compatriots in Bosnia or Croatia.
Similarly, Russia is the target of a demonization process for extending not just military assistance, but even humanitarian aid, to the Russian speaking Ukrainian regions. Western sponsors insist on an almost unlimited right to prop up their clients while denying Belgrade in the nineties and Moscow now a similar prerogative. Their insistence on a “level playing field” (a phrase often used in the Bosnian conflict) has been exposed for what it really is: sheer hypocrisy.
7. An important difference: Moscow has clearly defined policy goals. It may be argued that one of the chief reasons for the failure of Serbian resistance in Croatia and only partial success in Bosnia was the absence of a clear political concept both in their own ranks and in Belgrade, which was backing them. Arguably, the Russian analysis of that experience was important in ensuring that Moscow and its eastern Ukrainian allies do not get stuck in a conflict without a clear definition of their objectives and the means to achieve them. President Putin undoubtedly does not want to emulate Slobodan Milošević, who delivered a brilliant television address with profound insights into the machinations of his Western opponents but with a timing that could not have been more ill-fated – just days before he was overthrown.
It seems that events in the Balkans have had a sobering effect on Russian policy on two counts. First, in the late nineties the Kosovo war and the bombing of Yugoslavia clearly rang a huge alarm which contributed to the change of leadership which brought Vladimir Putin and his vision to prominence. But the ill effects of the meandering policy in support of his protégés in Bosnia and Croatia that Milošević pursued have taught the Russians another hugely important lesson. It is that if one does not have a broad strategic vision and the capacity to achieve its realization, it is better to avoid such risky and complex entanglements altogether.