The Bosnian PrecedentAnticipating Russia’s Crimes Against Humanity in Ukraine
Jasmin Mujanovic argues that Vladimir Putin’s imperial plan follows the genocidal path set out by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, and will be accompanied by the same strategy of disinformation and denial
As Ukrainians continue to push back Russian occupation forces across swathes of Ukraine’s northeast, a steady stream of evidence is emerging of large-scale Russian atrocities against the local population. The massacre in Bucha, just to the northwest of the capital Kyiv, is the clearest indication yet that Russia is committing systematic atrocities against the civilian population of Ukraine.
In fact, given the exterminationist rhetoric which continues to emanate from the Kremlin and Russian state media concerning the Ukrainian people and their state, Russia may be in the process of perpetrating a genocide in Ukraine.
While it is possible to turn to previous episodes in Moscow’s Ukraine policy which exhibited genocidal intent, above all the 1932-33 Holodomor, it is, arguably, the 1992-95 Bosnian Genocide, which offers the most instructive accounting of the nature of Russia’s program in Ukraine, and its likely evolution.
Nation Building through Genocide
The reasons for this comparison are two-fold. The first concerns the structural similarities between the current regime in Russia, and the then regime in Serbia which perpetrated the genocide against people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and its majority Bosniak community.
Both the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and Vladimir Putin fused disparate ideological motifs from their countries’ respective imperial/monarchist and communist periods, and combined these with a messianic, nationalist fervour which sought to “unify” their states with territories in neighbouring polities. The process of unification (that is, occupation), in both cases, was facilitated through the creation of faux republics in these polities, which served as the staging grounds for their respective military campaigns.
In the case of Bosnia, this was the self-declared Republika Srpska (RS) and its sister regime in occupied Croatia, the Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK). Moreover, in each case, Putin and Milosevic falsely claimed (at least initially) to have no direct involvement in the “internal” conflicts created in these states via the establishment of these self-declared republics. They did so despite also asserting political and military “guardianship” over the Russian and Serb communities in Ukraine and Bosnia, respectively.
The second reason for the comparison is in the practical consequences of the political and ideological program which Milosevic and Putin adopted.
Russia’s large-scale deployment of mobile crematoriums to Ukraine speaks clearly the true meaning of Putin’s “peace”.
The process of realising the RS as a separate political regime within Bosnia, much as the establishment of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) (as well as the Russian occupation regime in Crimea) could only be accomplished through systematic atrocities against much of the local population.
In Bosnia, the creation of the RS involved the wholesale expulsion, imprisonment, torture, and extermination of non-Serbs across large portions of the country’s north and east. While the genocide in Srebrenica is the most infamous killing field of the war, identical pogroms took place in Prijedor, Bijeljina, Foca, Visegrad, Zvornik, and dozens of other municipalities across the country. The totality of these events is why scholars increasingly refer to it as the Bosnian Genocide, rather than “merely” the genocide in Srebrenica.
Similar expulsions and terror followed in the initial period after the creation of the DPR/LPR and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But the most shocking scenes of organized violence against local civilian populations has occurred in the most recent phase of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. And that makes sense. As Russia has sought to expand and deepen its occupation of the country, it has had to contend with the overwhelming scale of Ukrainian opposition, including among local ethnic Russians.
Moreover, Ukrainians have heard well the sinister rhetoric that has spewed forth from the Kremlin in recent months. They know that even if they were to surrender peaceably to the invaders, they would be likely be “cleansed” all the same, much as the Bosniaks of Bosnia found out. Russia’s large-scale deployment of mobile crematoriums to Ukraine speaks clearly the true meaning of Putin’s “peace”.
Denialism and Disinformation
If the Bosnian Genocide comparison holds, what are Russia’s likely next steps in Ukraine? To begin with, we should expect to discover more atrocity sites like Bucha as Ukrainian forces liberate greater portions of the country.
International media crews may, in the meantime, discover sites of their own in the areas of Ukraine which remain under occupation. The first Serb nationalist-run concentration camps in Bosnia, for instance, were discovered by reporters from the UK’s ITN network and the Guardian newspaper. Killings in areas still under Russian occupation are likely ongoing.
As the weeks progress, we will discover the Russia has made likewise systematic attempts to conceal the scale of its atrocities, both against Ukrainian POWs and civilians. The length of its occupation of a particular region will largely determine how successful and elaborate these efforts were.
We know, for instance, that the Russian military has trained for the digging and organizing of mass graves in recent months. But as in Bosnia, we should expect that victims will also have been dismembered and buried at multiple sites, and possibly also reburied thereafter. Bodies are also almost certainly being burned, to further aid concealment of the scale of the killings. Likewise, it is possible that in areas close to the Russian (and Belarussian) border, groups may have been moved across the border to be executed and buried there, or at least the latter. Milosevic’s regime employed this tactic during both the Bosnian and Kosovo wars.
In the interim, Russia’s (dis)information will take centre stage. As in contemporary Serbia, government-sponsored revisionism, negationism, and denial will become mechanised; all segments of society will be involved in these efforts, including the press, the academy, and the church. Their unified aim will be to sow doubt and confusion about the regime’s atrocities. Several, often mutually exclusive, narratives will emerge, aspects of which are already evident. The initial approach will focus on denying the events in their entirety. Such claims will predominate until a more ideologically coherent and subtle narrative is formed.
Eventually, some government media or court intellectuals may allow that “something terrible occurred,” as Serbian officials often say about Srebrenica, but that the details are difficult to establish; the total death count is inflated by the Ukrainian Government and/or the West; and/or that those killed were not civilians but active combatants, liquidated in the course of battle.
Such narratives will co-exist with those that will claim that any/all such massacres were “false flag” operations by enemy forces. This has long-been a standard talking point about the Markale massacre(s) in Sarajevo, the May 1995 massacre in Tuzla, and Srebrenica among both Serb nationalists and their Western sympathisers. It is also a tactic that Russian state media have used both with respect to Syria but also the genocide in Bosnia.
Later, some regime media may even entertain the idea that the killings in their entirety took place but that they were “reprisals” for still greater atrocities committed by the Ukrainian forces. The figures for those purported original atrocities will initially be fluid until a government-approved figure is determined. Russian Government (media) figures also claim deaths from entirely unrelated events – for example, during the occupation of Ukraine by Nazi Germany – as part of a relevant “broader context” for understanding the atrocities being perpetrated by Russian forces today.
Simultaneously, we will continue to see examples of Russian atrocities occasionally be falsely portrayed as atrocities committed by Ukrainian forces. Familiar ‘whataboutist’ narratives will also remain a constant, especially as evidence of any actual war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces does come out. Moscow will be at pains to falsely portray any such instances as being akin to its own systematic campaign of crimes against humanity, thus seeking to undermine international outrage over the latter.
Throughout this process, Russia will again lean heavily on Western “anti-imperialist” but also far-right media and commentators to disseminate its talking points to the broader international community. We can expect that the same individuals and organizations which have spent years attempting to undermine the facts of Assad’s barbarous war in Syria will continue to do so in Ukraine as well.
Moreover, as decades of Bosnian Genocide revisionism and negationism suggest, unless there is a concerted effort to confront and de-platform such revisionist accounts, the people peddling them will continue to gain currency. In time, their views may become so normalised that they will be awarded major prizes, such as Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
Finally, we can expect to see examples not of denial or revisionism but atrocity glorification in Ukraine in the coming period. Russian soldiers have doubtlessly kept a record of their activities in the country, and that media will soon emerge on Russian extremist networks. Aspects of it have already appeared on Russian state TV. But it will become a more prominent feature of the public discourse within Russia, as it has in Serbia, as hardline elements seek to valorise the campaign in Ukraine. Moscow will likely temper such narratives in its Western-facing media coverage, but will allow it free rein within Russia itself, as the Government in Belgrade does.
In short, there can be no doubt that Russia will continue with its assault on the Ukrainian people. As such, the greatest lesson of the Bosnian Genocide is that best response to atrocities is to never allow them to occur in the first place. Alas, it is likely already too late for that in Ukraine. But at least unlike in Bosnia, which spent the entirety of Serbia’s aggression under a UN arms embargo, the West must continue to provide the Ukrainian people with all the necessary tools to defend their homeland. Their existence as society and as a culture depends on it.
Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist and the author of “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans”.