Shortly after the first bloodshed occurred in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1991 in a village in eastern Croatia, I asked a Croatian journalist to track down the names of the victims. Vesna Kesic was dubious of the point of the exercise. “Soon, there are going to be too many names for you to collect,” she told me laconically.
I was shocked. For me, as for most Western journalists, the thought of all-out war breaking out in what was still the most prosperous country in Eastern Europe was inconceivable. People would surely “see sense”, and “something would be done” – by the West, by the Russians, by the UN, or by somebody else.
As we know, that did not happen. The violence had a momentum of its own, and by late 1991, as the death toll climbed into the thousands, Kesic’s words came back to haunt me. Far too many names indeed.
As the death toll in Ukraine grows and as the prospect of a negotiated end to the crisis there recedes, the danger of Ukraine becoming the next Yugoslavia looks real. Catholics versus Orthodox, self-styled pro-Europeans versus others looking eastwards – several of the factors at work in the Yugoslav maelstrom are visible in Ukraine.
What is also at work is a disastrous blame game, with Moscow and various Western capitals choosing respective sides and each accusing the other of fomenting violence. In Yugoslavia, the Russians championed the Serbs, the Germans backed the Croats and the British and French tacked between the two camps, murmuring sympathetic words about the Serbs but fearful of a rupture with the Germans. No such division exists in the Western camp over Ukraine; the fault lines are different. But the result looks much the same – two blocs tussling over what is in danger of becoming a battleground for other people’s interests.
In Yugoslavia, the Russians blinked first. The Kremlin spluttered and the Duma passed furious resolutions on behalf of Russia’s Orthodox brothers in Serbia – but Russia did not actually do much, either when the West bombed Serb positions in Bosnia in 1995 or when it bombed Serbia itself in 1999.
In this respect, it was a repeat of 1908, when the Austrian annexation of Bosnia created expectations of a war with Russia that did not materialise – rather than a repeat of 1914, when Russia did mobilise on behalf of Serbia, thus helping to start the First World War.
Today, it is important to remember why Russia upped the ante in 1914, over Serbia. It was because it was convinced that if Serbia was not just humiliated – as had been the case in 1908 – but invaded – which was Austria’s intention in 1914 – Russia would cease to be a great power. Vladimir Putin certainly sees the threat to topple the Ukrainian government in 1914 terms, as a direct challenge to Russia’s status as a power that cannot be ducked.
Threats of sanctions against Ukrainian leaders may make EU leaders feel virtuous, but if the Europeans want to stop Ukraine from passing the point of no return they had better start talking to the Kremlin about ways in which both sides in Ukraine can pull back without feeling they have surrendered.
Pace Yugoslavia, which has since spawned no fewer than seven states, the politicians need to bear in mind that once the death toll has passed a certain point, it is almost impossible to stitch a country back together.