This sounds like Vladimir Putin in 2022, but it’s Slobodan Milošević in 1992, when military forces under the Serbian leader’s control went on a genocidal rampage in Bosnia. The war dragged on for years and involved sieges of Sarajevo and other cities, including Srebrenica. Milošević claimed Bosnia was an artificial country that didn’t deserve to exist — the kind of lie that Putin has deployed against Ukraine. Serbs shelled apartment buildings and attacked civilians as they tried to flee — just as the Russian army is now doing in Ukraine. You can look at a picture of Sarajevo in 1992 and a picture of Kyiv in 2022 and not know which is which.
There’s a lot of guessing about what Putin will be able to achieve in Ukraine and whether he’ll survive in power, now that his opening gambit has failed. But there has been surprisingly little reference to the precedent of Milošević and Bosnia. It’s as though what happened in Bosnia is not regarded as an authentic chapter of Europe’s history — because most of the war’s 100,000 victims were Muslim, and Muslims aren’t considered fully European. As the historian Edin Hajdarpašić noted last week: “If 1990s Bosnia is taught, it is in courses on genocide & violence, but rarely as part of European history courses.” It’s an omission that does more than reveal how prejudice tilts our choices about which history to highlight and which history to ignore; it deprives us of a greater understanding of what may lie ahead.
There are two sides to the lessons from Belgrade and Sarajevo. The first is that a leader who embarks on a violently nihilist path can remain in power far longer than you might expect. There is speculation about a possible coup in Moscow, but Milošević stayed in office throughout the war, which ended after four years, and wasn’t ousted until late in 2000 when he tried to rig an election that he lost. The second lesson is that an underdog fighting for survival can stave off, though with immense loss of life, a far larger force that lacks its motivation. The Bosnian Army was thrown together after the Serb onslaught began and persevered, despite an unconscionable arms embargo by the United Nations (imposed against all parties but hurting only the Bosnian side, because Serbs had plenty of weapons of their own).
It goes without saying — so of course I feel obliged to say it — that what happened a generation ago in the Balkans is not predictive of what will happen in Ukraine and Russia. The differences are considerable. In many ways, what we’re seeing in Ukraine is a speed-chess version of the wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Syria, with the pieces on the board now including nuclear weapons. But in addition to covering the war in Bosnia, I studied Russian at Leningrad State University back in the Soviet era and occasionally reported from the USSR during its collapse and afterward, including a brief stint in Ukraine when it became independent (a story I wrote in 1991 was headlined “Ukrainians Fear Border Disputes Could Bring Conflict With Russia”). What is happening today is uncanny, an old tune played in a new key with a faster tempo and higher stakes.
Photos: Vladimir Smirnov/Pool/AFP/Getty Images, Chip Hires/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
What is Putin’s endgame?
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and prominent commentator on the war, has given voice to a consensus view. “Putin has no endgame,” he wrote last week. “Even if he takes Kyiv, then what? Ukrainians will never submit to him. Never.” It’s true that Ukrainians have amply demonstrated they will not give up, but in the context of the Milošević experience, McFaul’s assessment seems unimaginative.
Putin is a true believer in the idea of a greater Russia: He genuinely would like to return Russia to what he regards as its lost glory. Milošević’s embrace of Serbian nationalism was different. He was opportunistic from the start; nationalism was just a vehicle to take him to power and keep him there. With Kyiv demonstrating that it will not become Russia’s property, Putin is moving toward Milošević’s cynical position. As his army appears to move slowly, with large amounts of equipment abandoned and significant numbers of soldiers captured or killed, we’re already hearing less talk of national glory and territorial expansion. Staying in power — doing whatever is necessary to stay there — is the new endgame. The more clearly we understand that, the better we can understand what Putin’s tactics will be in the time ahead.
For context, let me take you back in time to the noisy dining room of the Serbian Parliament in Belgrade during the Milošević era. It was late in 1992, when the war and genocide in Bosnia were searingly hot. Serbia was a strange place. It wasn’t a full dictatorship; there were some independent media outlets. If you didn’t like Milošević, you could say so, within limits. The dining room was filled with political hacks and war criminals, as well as a handful of dejected reformers. One of them recognized me. He had been my interpreter a year earlier, but now he was a senior functionary in the federal Yugoslav government, a powerless entity that was nominally separate from Milošević’s Serbian government, where all power resided. Laszlo sat down at my table and laughed when I remarked that Milošević would not like the latest peace proposal because it wouldn’t give him the land he sought for a greater Serbia.
“Don’t ask what strategy is best for achieving a greater Serbia, or what strategy is best for the welfare of the Serbs,” Laszlo told me. “Ask what strategy will keep Milošević in power, and that’s the one he will follow. All of these things that he talks about, like nationalism and protecting Serbs, are just tools that he uses to stay in power. He doesn’t care about them at all. He doesn’t care about anyone at all. He cares only about staying in power.”
The pursuit of violence was the best strategy for staying in power.
The pursuit of violence was the best strategy for staying in power. War allowed Milošević to drape his regime in the national flag and blame everything — the sanctions and corruption and penury and hyperinflation — on the supposed threats Serbs faced from Bosnia’s Muslims and America’s imperialism. Those excuses eventually ran out of steam, but Milošević survived longer than expected by combining the rhetoric of national defiance with the cowardly violence of soldiers sitting in the hills and bombing civilians in the valleys below. Peace, when it finally came, was a tactic he used to maintain his rule. It was not his goal.
What does this tell us about Putin? It’s important to note, again, that it’s impossible for any of us to know what Putin will do or what’s going on in his head. But precedents are instructive.
Ben Judah, an Atlantic Council fellow who wrote a book about Putin, noted the other day that the structure of power in Russia is a “personalistic dictatorship.” Putin has been in charge for more than two decades and is surrounded by cowering “yes” men; just watch the videos of his meetings with his national security council, his generals, and top business executives. In a similar vein, when I interviewed Milošević in 1993, there was nobody else in his spacious office: no bodyguard, no note-taker, no media adviser. He ruled alone. The interests of men like Milošević and Putin come before all else. “He could either suddenly declare ‘the anti-terror operation was a success’ or escalate dramatically,” Judah wrote on Twitter, of Putin. “Depending on what he thinks is in it for him, he’s capable of ditching the offensive or ditching the entire economy as we’ve known it in massive escalation.”
The rationale for continued warfare is that it binds more Russians to Putin than would come from an acknowledgment of his blunder and withdrawal of his forces. Retreat, even if packaged as a victory by wringing a concession or two out of the Ukrainians, could wind up being a larger blow to his hold on power. The math could easily change, with Putin calculating that retreat would better serve his interests; this could happen anytime. But until then, the violence will carry on. The war crimes that horrify so many of us are unlikely to factor into his calculations, because he has done this before, in Chechnya as well as Syria, with no fallout at home. Witness, for instance, the news reports in which ordinary Russians deny their forces are bombing cities in Ukraine despite being shown evidence of it. Yes, these are early days, but denialism of this sort is not unusual years into wars and afterward too. It helps to remember that in the 1990s, only a small number of Serbs believed their forces in Bosnia were guilty of war crimes despite an inundation of proof. And they still feel that way. Despite an international tribunal ruling in multiple cases that Bosnian Serbs committed genocide, Serbia’s current president is none other than Alexander Vučić, a minister in Milošević’s last government.
There is good news for Ukraine from Bosnia, and it has to do with weapons.
The Bosnia war began after a majority of voters cast their ballots in favor of independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. The United Nations had placed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, using the rationale that more weapons would mean more fighting as the country broke up. In fact, the Serbs had plenty of weapons because they controlled the Yugoslav National Army and had open borders with the rest of the world to acquire whatever they did not already possess. The Bosnian government, on the other hand, had no weapons at the start and limited means to acquire them even illicitly, because it was mostly encircled by its Serb enemy and faced its off-and-on Croat allies elsewhere. The embargo meant only that the Serbs, who started the war, would never lose their advantage in armaments. At the end of one of my winter reporting trips to Sarajevo, I left my boots with my interpreter because his brother was on the snowy front lines in sneakers.
The Bosnian Army hung on and prevented Serb forces from overrunning Sarajevo and other chunks of the country that had not been conquered in the first months of the war, when the Serbs made most of their gains. This showed what can be achieved by a motivated army even if it is outmatched in firepower. Serb fighters were cowardly: At the war’s outset, they attacked towns that had no defenses, shooting people at will, and once the front lines were set, they squatted in the hills and shot at civilians from a distance. I visited Serb soldiers in their mountain bunkers; they were glad to kill but afraid to put their lives on the line. When they finally starved and broke Srebrenica in 1995, they executed more than 8,000 men and boys.
The parallel to Ukraine is startling, with a crucial difference.
Ukrainians are defending their homes and their independence. Russian soldiers do not really know what they are fighting for.
The Russian Army is massive compared to Ukraine’s, which is why Putin was so confident of prevailing in a matter of days, just as Milošević did not anticipate fighting for years in Bosnia (he had planned to quickly carve up Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia). But the Ukrainians, like the Bosnian forces, are defending their homes and their independence. Russian soldiers do not really know what they are fighting for; many were reportedly not even told they would be invading Ukraine. Just as lackluster Serb forces resorted to indiscriminate fire against civilian targets, the Russians are falling back on that dismal strategy in Ukraine.
But here is a key distinction: While the Bosnian Army was starved of weapons due to the U.N. embargo, Ukraine has been preparing for this war since Russia seized Crimea in 2014; it has been getting support in this effort from the U.S. and its NATO allies. More to the point, it is now on the receiving end of a massive infusion of weapons in the billions of dollars and apparently growing by the day. I don’t think interpreters in Kyiv are finding it necessary to solicit donations of winter boots for their front-line siblings.
It was a journalist from Bosnia who made this comparative point the other day. “Don’t underestimate Ukraine,” Melina Borčak wrote on Twitter. “Bosnia was independent, but didn’t have an army when it was attacked. … There was an arms embargo, so we couldn’t even buy a handful of guns. Everyone thought, we will bleed out fast. We resisted for 4 YEARS.”
The resistance came at a terrible cost. Not just the 100,000 deaths, but the physical and psychological scars that millions of survivors carry to this day, as well as internal borders that divide Bosnia still, thanks to a peace treaty, negotiated at a U.S. military base, that gave half the country to the genocidal Serbs. Let us hope, this time, that the U.S. and its allies conduct themselves in a manner that helps Ukraine arrive at a fairer and quicker endgame of its own.