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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