Putin’s Balkan narrative argument for the war in Ukraine

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Long before Russian tanks and troops arrived in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin was using the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to ostensibly justify invading a sovereign European country.

The Russian president has particularly focused on the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the West’s acceptance of Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. He says the two set an illegal precedent that broke international law and order, seemingly giving him an excuse to invade Ukraine.

Putin’s arguments, repeated over and over since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, seem to run along this line: if different ex-Yugoslavian republics and the former Serbian province of Kosovo could become independent with the support and wars countries, why couldn’t Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea peninsula? and the rebel-controlled Russian-majority regions in the east of the country broke away from their parent nations – with Russian help?

With strong American support, the ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo seceded despite Serbia’s strong objections. Russia, a historic ally of the Serbs, then argued that this set a precedent that could trigger a series of state claims elsewhere in the world.

In July 2010, the UN’s highest court ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal, but did not outright endorse Kosovo’s claim to statehood.

There are many differences between the Russian attack on Ukraine, considered in the West as one of the darkest moments for Europe since the Second World War, and the wars in the Balkans which claimed more than 120,000 dead and millions homeless. There are also some similarities.


NATO did not occupy Kosovo after driving out Serbian forces from the former Serbian province, but sent peacekeepers. Russian troops, meanwhile, took control of Crimea even before its referendum on joining Russia.

NATO only intervened in Kosovo after significant evidence of Serb abuses against ethnic Albanians, including massacres and deportations. Russian forces intervened in Ukraine with no reports of major abuse or violence against ethnic Russians.

The Kosovars declared their independence but did not join their ethnic brethren in neighboring Albania in a single state. Crimea, which has a majority Russian population, signed an agreement to join Russia two days after the referendum, deemed flawed and undemocratic by the West.


Both interventions began with false claims that ethnic minorities are being persecuted in neighboring countries. The Serb-led army unleashed a heavy artillery barrage on towns and villages in Croatia in 1991, something similar to the initial attacks by Russian forces on Ukraine.

Just as Croats, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians feared Serbian repression under the autocratic rule of late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, ethnic Russians feared Ukrainian nationalists.


“(German Chancellor Olaf Scholz) just said that people of his generation – and I certainly belong to that generation myself – find it hard to imagine a war in Europe,” Putin said after talks with Scholz at Moscow on November 15.

“But we all witnessed the war in Europe that NATO unleashed against Yugoslavia,” Putin said. He recalled that it was a major military operation involving bombardments against a European capital, Belgrade.

” It happened. Without any sanctions from the UN Security Council. This is a very sad example, but it is an undeniable fact,” Putin said.

He argued that by intervening in Kosovo, the West set a precedent with lasting consequences.


During the press conference with Putin, Scholz hit back at the Russian president’s arguments about NATO’s actions in Kosovo, saying it was done to prevent genocide, referring to the persecution of the majority of ethnic Albanians of Kosovo by Serbian forces.

Western leaders have repeatedly dismissed Putin’s arguments, saying Kosovo was a unique case because of the high number of casualties during the Balkan wars amid the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel had insisted that Putin’s analogies between the West’s actions in Kosovo and Russia’s intervention in Crimea were “shameful”.


There are fears that pro-Russian Serbian leaders are trying to use international attention on Ukraine to further destabilize its neighbours, particularly Bosnia where the Serbian minority is threatening to join Serbia.

European Union peacekeepers in Bosnia have announced the deployment of some 500 additional troops, citing “deteriorating international security (which) has the potential to spread instability” in the region.

Kosovo leaders fear that Serbia is being encouraged by Russia to try to intervene in its former province to end alleged harassment of minority Serbs. Kosovo asked NATO for a fast track to membership in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, which neither Serbia nor Russia would likely accept peacefully.

Kosovar officials dismissed Putin’s parallels between NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and his invasion of Ukraine as “totally baseless and ridiculous”.


AP Balkan correspondent Dusan Stojanovic covered the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and events in Ukraine in 2014.

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