From Sre­brenica to Bucha

Foto: Haris Memija /​ Imago Images

What hap­pened in Sre­brenica 27 years ago is now occur­ring in Bucha, Mar­i­upol and other areas of Ukraine con­quered by Russia. An essay by Marieluise Beck

Russia’s war of aggres­sion against Ukraine is not the first one in post-war Europe. The dis­so­lu­tion of the social­ist federal repub­lic of Yugoslavia resulted in four wars. Little Slove­nia got off lightly. After ten days of sabre-rat­tling, the Yugoslav army with­drew from the country and com­plied with the procla­ma­tion of a sov­er­eign state.

When Croatia announced its with­drawal from the social­ist fed­er­a­tion as well, the Yugoslav mil­i­tary launched an attack. It had become an army of Serbian nation­al­ism. Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic was the polit­i­cal leader of the idea of estab­lish­ing a Greater Serbian Empire. “Where a Serb lives – this is Serbia” was the slogan of his bloody cam­paigns. Former Yugoslavia was to become Greater Serbia.

To this day, the fairy story per­sists that the war against Croatia broke out because Germany – and deci­sively its then Foreign Min­is­ter Gen­scher – rec­og­nized the country’s sov­er­eignty. His­tor­i­cal facts prove the oppo­site. The mur­der­ous cam­paign of the Serbian mil­i­tary ended after the West accepted Croatia’s striv­ing for inde­pen­dence as legitimate.

The multi-ethnic Repub­lic of Bosnia also declared its with­drawal from the Yugoslav state. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of the country’s cit­i­zens opposed the threat of war with a peace demon­stra­tion in Sara­jevo. Bosnia was not pre­pared for a mil­i­tary con­flict. The Serbian gen­er­als con­trolled large parts of the once common mil­i­tary, with its exten­sive arsenal of weapons. Bosnia was effec­tively unarmed. Thus, Serbian para­mil­i­taries were able to take over large parts of the east within a few days, fol­lowed by expul­sion, murder and terror. Reli­gious affil­i­a­tion was rede­fined as a national ethnic group. Catholics were declared Croats, Serbian Ortho­dox Serbs and Muslims became Bosni­aks. All this hap­pened in a country that was largely secular after almost 50 years of socialism.

This marked the begin­ning of the years of “ethnic cleans­ing”, a cover word for mass murder and the expul­sion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of people. The West reacted hes­i­tantly. Mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion was rejected. It was too risky and entailed the danger of esca­la­tion. The argu­ments for waiting and watch­ing are repeating!

What char­ac­terises Russia’s war against Ukraine today also dom­i­nated the nation­al­ist cam­paign of Serbian extrem­ists. Coun­tries were invaded that did not want war, but only sought inde­pen­dence. There was an extreme imbal­ance of mil­i­tary power. The West stuck to its formula of no weapons in crisis areas. In doing so, victims were hit, and the posi­tion of the aggres­sor was strengthened.

Hes­i­ta­tion and self-decep­tion became the stan­dard of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity over the years. Thus, the mil­i­tary mandate of the UN Blue Helmets (peace­keep­ers) was limited to their self-pro­tec­tion. Medi­a­tion offi­cers from the Euro­pean Union dressed in white rushed to the places of attack when the mur­der­ers had already left. The UN Sec­re­tary General declared the towns of Žepa and Sre­brenica as pro­tec­tion zones – and did not find any inter­na­tional troops to protect these places.

The outcome is well known. In Sre­brenica, ter­ri­fied Dutch Blue Helmets handed over some 8,000 men into the hands of Serbian troops, which was their death sen­tence. Sre­brenica became one of the United Nations’ darkest hours. Shocked as it was by the policy of backing down, the “Respon­si­bil­ity to Protect” was established.

The year 1999 proved that “lessons learned” were pos­si­ble. Under the watch­ful eyes of the OSCE, the Serbian mil­i­tary marched up in Kosovo on a new cam­paign of exter­mi­na­tion and expul­sion. The first mass grave of Kosovar civil­ians was found in Račak. The German Red-Green coali­tion gov­ern­ment under Federal Chan­cel­lor Schröder and the min­is­ters Fischer and Trittin par­tic­i­pated in a NATO oper­a­tion that repelled the Serbian attack.

Unlike in Bosnia, 200,000 people did not have to die before the West had the courage to intervene.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is enter­ing its ninth year. The annex­a­tion of Crimea was met with only mild sanc­tions being imposed by the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity. There was a great deal of sym­pa­thy for the “recla­ma­tion” of Crimea by the all-pow­er­ful Russia. The occu­pa­tion of the Donbas was fol­lowed by nego­ti­a­tions in the Minsk format, in the success of which the aggres­sor was clearly not inter­ested. However, there were no consequences.

Ukraine, which was attacked by Russia, was not suf­fi­ciently strong in terms of mil­i­tary to make further actions by the aggres­sor an incal­cu­la­ble risk. On the con­trary, although Pres­i­dent Putin already declared in the summer of 2014 that his goal was to return to the zones of influ­ence of the Cold War, and although he had almost 150,000 sol­diers deployed on Ukraine’s borders from the summer of 2021 onwards – the German gov­ern­ment still declared in January 2022 that it would not supply “weapons to the crisis area”. That was not Germany’s role, it stated.

The progress of the story is well known. Renowned experts on inter­na­tional law assume that Russia’s war of aggres­sion bears all the hall­marks of geno­cide. What hap­pened in Sre­brenica is now occur­ring in Bucha, Mar­i­upol and other areas con­quered by Russia. An inter­na­tional court will deter­mine this, if at all, posthu­mously. Too late, history will prob­a­bly say.

Mean­while, the Russian mil­i­tary rages on. Young, poorly armed Ukraini­ans die in a des­per­ate attempt to protect their cit­i­zens from Russian despo­tism. A German defence min­is­ter points out that Germany will not allow the Bundeswehr’s stocks to be “plun­dered” for the benefit of Ukraine. The ques­tion may be asked which defence case the min­is­ter expects in the short term, for which we need all avail­able weapons. A blitzkrieg by the Russian army through Poland and the Baltic States, so that we have to be ready to defend our­selves at the river Oder? Anyone who sees us so dra­mat­i­cally close to war has to answer ques­tions. Or is it a ques­tion of not enrag­ing the Russian aggressor?

It can be assumed that her former coun­ter­part Peter Struck would have seen things dif­fer­ently. “Our freedom is being defended in Ukraine,” he would have said. And Germany would have to stand res­olutely and in sol­i­dar­ity with Ukraine.

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