Western democracies did not foresee Russia’s barbaric assault on Ukraine. They might have done better had they viewed the Putin regime’s threats in the context of a catastrophic conflict in Europe that began 30 years ago. The war in Bosnia claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 people in a country the size of Scotland. Half the population has been displaced from their homes. The depravities of war included genocide, internment camps, mass rapes, and the deliberate destruction of historic sites and cultural treasures. The siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, lasted longer than the Nazi siege of Leningrad and killed more than 11,000 civilians.
For most of the duration of the war, from April 1992 to December 1995, Western democracies carefully practiced non-intervention for fear of engaging in a fight in which they had no interest. The fierce violence appeared to policymakers and diplomats to stem from a clash of intractable and long-standing communal hatreds.
This was a profound misreading that has had disastrous consequences for Bosnia and Europe to this day. The explanation for the war was simpler: one side was determined to annihilate the other, which lacked the means to defend itself adequately. Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian President, had a fanatical plan to create an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia”. His vision was based on a historical myth as false, xenophobic and inflammatory as Vladimir Putin’s notion that Ukraine is not a real country and that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”. And his pursuit was a warning of planned aggression.
Milošević was an apparatchik of limited imagination and ability, who saw his chance for power in the post-communist era by appealing to virulent nationalism. Addressing a mass rally in June 1989, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, he said Serbia could not rule out a strategy of violence. And he meant it. His threats had already driven three Yugoslav republics out of the federation before Bosnia declared independence in 1992. This became the pretext, but not the cause, for a ruthless Serbian campaign of destruction.
The European Union and the United States have recognized the new state. So a conspiracy theory quickly emerged on the far left and far right that it was all done to advance the cause of imperialism against brave Belgrade, and that the West was using radical Islam as a tool for this purpose. Bosnia was and remains a multi-ethnic state, whose Muslim population is an integral part of European history and culture. Yet a campaign of xenophobic lies has instead portrayed Bosnia as a citadel of jihadism.
It all made no sense, but it has its counterpart in the propaganda of the same malignant tendency, and sometimes literally the same people, more recently. Waging war against a captive Syrian population since 2011, most recently with Russian military support, the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Its Western apologists, spanning the anti-Muslim right and the ostensibly anti-imperialist left, accuse these atrocities of actually being the work of jihadists who are secretly backed by the United States and its allies.
In the real world, the Obama administration has worked to avoid entanglement in the civil war in Syria, just as the Clinton administration had originally hoped to stay out of the Bosnian conflict. The decision by Western powers to recognize Bosnian independence was not part of a colonial plan to break up Yugoslavia. They simply hoped to stabilize an already well-advanced rupture in this way. Serbian propaganda then and since has portrayed Alija Izetbegović, the Bosnian President, as a separatist bent on establishing an Islamic republic, but this is an absurd misrepresentation. Izetbegović championed religious pluralism and only reluctantly accepted the case for Bosnian independence. He was fully aware that Bosnia lacked its own armed forces and would be extremely vulnerable in the event of a Serb attack, but Milošević’s threats forced his hand. It was hoped that a declaration of independence would secure international support and thus protect the Bosnians. Tragically, while the support came, it was limited to little more than rhetoric.
Milošević ran the war tacitly but with an unmistakable trail of evidence, including telephone transcripts. His plenipotentiaries in this scourge were Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Ratko Mladić, the military commander, both serving life sentences for genocide and war crimes. A no-fly zone, established in response to a UN Security Council resolution, and an arms embargo only froze a huge power imbalance between the Serbs (who had taken over the armament of the former Yugoslav armed forces) and constitutional government in Sarajevo. It was not until 1995, after the genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, that NATO air power dispersed Serbian divisions and created the preconditions for a negotiated settlement.
This negotiation, however, had enormous costs. He produced the Dayton Accords, signed at an air base in Ohio. Milošević came out of it stronger than when he entered it. International sanctions were biting because the war had turned against him, and he wanted relief. He also won just under half of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and recognition of the small rump Serbian state known as Republika Srpska (RS). A Bosnian Tripartite Presidency was established.
It was a fateful deal that sowed the seeds of further discord. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of the tripartite presidency, is now proposing to remove the RS from the central institutions of the Bosnian state. It is in fact an attempt at secession. And it is fueled by a campaign of lies by Dodik and his supporters that the Srebrenica genocide never happened. If the Bosnian fabric is torn again, the humanitarian costs will be immense and it will represent a triumph for Putin’s regime in Europe, even if it meets heroic resistance from Ukrainian forces. For Russia, the horrors of a renewed ethnic conflict would have the compensating advantage of preventing any prospect of Bosnian membership of the EU and NATO.
The seductions of nationalism are powerful and murderous. Such flattery is invariably offered by demagogues and despots. Western democracies have no choice but to stand against them and alongside constitutional governments and threatened populations. The costs are all the more deadly if this choice is postponed or avoided.