A Few Notes on Ukraine: Lessons from Croatia ’91

* While working on this text, a very interesting piece came out with a very similar comparison, only from a slightly different angle and the analysis made by a trained professional who is familiar with some other, more specific details. I seriously advise checking it out.

** A huge thanks goes to Ben Peake who, with his comments, suggestions and advice, helped to brush up this text significantly, both regarding its form and its content.

Even at a first glance the similarities between the war in Ukraine in 2014/15 and the war in Croatia in 1990-95 are striking, with many political, military, ideological and, most of all social factors in common. These near-identical aspects should be compared and analysed, not simply for academic purposes, but also because they give a glimpse on how events may progress in the future and may provide practical clues about how to influence events.

War in Croatia officially started in 1991. Its main trigger happened the year before, when the first post-communist multiparty elections for the republic ended with the replacement of the existing communist government with a nationalist one, sending Croatia on its path toward independence from Yugoslavia. Soon after the elections, the minority Serb population voiced their dissent with this course of events, strongly encouraged, if not actively incited, by the leadership of Republic of Serbia and quietly supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army – by that time significantly under Serbian Nationalist control. When war started, it wasn’t as much a war to prevent Croatia from seceding as it was an ethnic conflict aimed at carving out areas of Croatia where a significant population of Serbs was present, including those where Serbs were a minority, but still viewed as “historically Serbian” by nationalists.

After initial success and moderate territorial gains mostly due to the Croatian armed forces being in an early stage of formation, by the end of 1991 Serbian advances were halted and, in some minor areas, even reversed. At that moment, after roughly six months of intense fighting, a tense cease-fire came into effect. With a few short and localised breaches, the ceasefire lasted until 1995 when the now fully formed and organised Croatian Army retook most of the occupied areas in two successive military operations, each lasting only a few days. The last stretch of territory was reintegrated diplomatically in 1997, thus ending the conflict.

In Ukraine, events began with the Maidan Revolution in winter 2013/14, triggered by President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign association agreements with the European Union. Yanukovich has been a thorn in the side of the pro-Western Ukrainian groups since the “Orange Revolution” ten years earlier, but especially during his five-year presidential term, starting in 2010. Although democratically elected (which is disputed by his opponents), he ruled in a totalitarian manner, accumulating a bizarre amount of wealth, earning criticism for his attempts at censorship and suppressing his political opponents. His main opponent, Yulia Timoshenko, ended up in jail, convicted for a number of alleged crimes unrelated to her political activity.

The “Euromaidan” protests lasted a few months, ending in violent clashes which lead to the overthrow of Yanukovich. A new, provisional government was formed with fresh parliamentary and presidential elections taking place roughly six months later. However, formation of a strongly pro-Western government in Kiev met with a rapid response by Russia. Within a few days, covert operations started, ending with the Russian annexation of Crimea, a strategically placed peninsula with a Russian ethnic majority. At the same time, a series of “anti-Maidan” protests started in eastern Ukraine, organised by the remnants of the Yanukovich regime and assisted by structures connected to the secret service of the Russian Federation, lead by figures such as Colonel Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov. Protests soon grew into an armed rebellion and a full scale war which Russia supported politically and militarily.

It is obvious that the political movements and events causing the Croatian and Ukrainian wars were extremely different. However, once started, the methodology, situation in the field and the means that the conflicts have been lead with show striking resemblance.


Origins and ideologies

Firstly, the obvious: both Croatia and Ukraine were the second-most-powerful republics of large, officially communist, politically strong unions. In both countries the movements that came to power had strong pro-western, pro-democratic ideologies; even if the governments did not follow through on those ideals completely, populations leaned heavily toward democracy and the ascent of civil society over the power of the State.

Both Croatia and Ukraine were faced with rebellions supported by neighbouring countries sharing the ethnicity of the rebels – Serbia and Russia – distinguished as pseudo-democratic nationalist totalitarian states, national identities wrapped around the personality cults of their leaders, Slobodan Milošević and Vladimir Putin respectively. Furthermore, both leaders either came to power or strengthened their rule by appealing to “national [i.e. ethnic] awakening”. In Serbia this was achieved by breaking the communist taboo of celebrating ethnic identities. In Russia, Putin kick-started the economy and successfully reorganised a nearly collapsing country unable to execute a small war on its own territory into a convalescing superpower able to project its power internationally.

In both cases a Grand Unifying Ideology was present; one a branch of Greater Serbian national-chauvinism claiming that Croats are not a nation, but only “Catholic Serbs”, while a similar tendency exists in Russo-Ukrainian relations. In both cases, there have even been academic papers trying to prove that large portions of the “smaller nation” (Croats, Ukrainians) actually ethnically belong to the “bigger one” (Serbs, Russians). Furthermore, this ideology was present even during communism, even if expressed as an idea of “international brotherhood” starting within the confines of the State’s “sphere of influence”. When this concept failed, both ideologies viewed breakaway nations as “renegades” and “traitors”. This lead to an informal suspension of the ethical and emotional “rules of engagement” in favour of the viciousness felt against betrayal by a family member.


To add some more spice to the comparison, both Croatia and Ukraine have pasts burdened with genocidal WWII pro-Nazi regimes.[1] Furthermore, in both events (elections in Croatia and the fall of Yanukovich in Ukraine) right and far-right forces openly invoked those WWII pro-nazi movements, some even presenting themselves as direct successors. These forces maintained significant presence in the theatre of events and, as hostilities increased, were active allies of the pro-democratic forces.

All this heavily influenced the political and, even more, media frames for both conflicts and gave Russia and Serbia justification and fuel for propaganda to flood national media – already under full control of their respective regimes serving personality cults and nationalist ideology – significantly contributing to national mobilisation of their supporters and ethnic communities. Populations in both Russia today and Serbia a quarter-century ago fully supported their leaders in waging war against the neighbouring republic/state whom they perceive(d) as fascist. This depiction of the enemy provided an impeccable excuse for getting away with, basically, everything. The similarities in vocabulary, tropes and motifs of both propaganda machineries are astonishing.

Nationalities and excuses

In both cases there was a longstanding ethnic tension between majority and soon-to-be-rebel minority groups, suppressed by communist regimes for half a century or more. In both cases the majority resented the past repression by the communist federation which it actually saw as a personification of the minority’s home republic (which was, in both cases, the largest republic in the federation). In both cases, minority members initially held some kind of a special status, fearing oppression, expulsion and possible genocide by their republic’s controlling ethnic group, fears additionally amplified by their parent-country’s propaganda machine. Interesting enough, in both cases the majority provided additional excuses for those fears, introducing symbolic (or immediately recalled) laws vilifying or disempowering members of the minority.[2]

In both cases, however, the existence, activity and public presence of far-right groups ostensibly representing the interests of the majority was disproportionally high to their real strength and support within the society. Furthermore, minority-groups presented themselves as anti-fascist and in some cases pro-communist: some units and individuals in both pro-Serb and pro-Russian forces wore red stars and, more rarely, hammer-and-sickle symbols, icons shunned by both Croatian and Ukrainian nationalists. Also, on the Serbian/Russian side, both conflicts were presented as continuations of the battles begun in WWII. Some elements from within the Croatian/Ukrainian groups also used this framing, positioning themselves firmly with their historical far-right forebears. More moderate civil groups did, however, dispute the conflict being framed in this way. In both cases the reality was that the side claiming to be anti-fascist objectively showed stronger fascist characteristics. While the sovereign side officially contained “pro-fascist” elements, this was usually expressed on symbolic levels and sporadic incidents of targeted violence. However, the separatist side, those presenting themselves as “anti-fascists”, more actively exemplified fascist behaviour: while many Serb fighters and units celebrated their own WWII pro-nazi leaders carrying out straightforward ethnic cleansing, “pro-Novorossya” support from Russia typically came from extreme right-wing organisations and individuals, not to speak of revelling in their anti-Semitism and anti-gay sentiment.

Boys behaving badly

Another similarity between the Ukrainian and Croatian wars was the treatment of prisoners. While Russian and Serbian POWs and civilians were indeed mistreated in captivity [3], the war crimes and POW maltreatment committed by separatist forces surpass these by many orders of magnitude. The mass executions of Croat civilians and prisoners and the systematic beating of hundreds of POWs in prisoner camps in Serbia prior to prisoner exchange is well documented. There have also been extensive public beatings and humiliation of Ukrainian prisoners – an amazing quantity of it proudly presented on YouTube by perpetrators. Ukrainians nationalists have also used violent intimidation on officials or politicians they suspected of supporting the Yanukovich regime or the rebels. Crowds or “activists” stormed administration buildings and offices, beating and dragging out suspected Yanukovich supporters, publicly humiliating them and forcing them to sign resignations. This, however, pales to a number of pro-Ukrainian local deputies, representatives, officials or civil activists who were killed during protests in the first days of post-Maidan or simply disappeared, only for their remains to be found weeks or months later.

Military hardware and software

Another similar feature between the Croatian and Ukranian conflicts was the general state of both militaries at the start of the war, although for different reasons and with different consequences. Firstly, both wars started when military and security forces were either non-existent, disorganised or only not yet fully formed.

At the time of its first independent elections, Croatia didn’t have an army of its own, being a part of a federation with a joint army. Civilian police forces were going through a period of rapid reform. As the political situation became more volatile, the Croatian leadership was running a race against time to organise an effective military force.

In contrast, the official Ukrainian army was already in existence, with full command structure and equipment. However, the 20 years of economic and political decay following the collapse of the Soviet Union had rendered it a force that was anything but effective. Most of the higher ranks were either incompetent or trained in the principles of Soviet military doctrine, which were both outdated and inadequate for the situation-at-hand. Many also held questionable loyalty to the Ukrainian State. Ukraine having been a Russian satellite for so long that, for many, a notion of the country outside of the Russo-Ukrainian joint entity felt alien. Consequently, what hadn’t been ruined by incompetence and lack of preparation was devastated by incidents of treason which remains a serious problem within the Ukrainian armed forces.[4] Even though Ukraine had an army, maybe it would have been better if it hadn’t and had directed its efforts to creating armed forces from scratch instead. Steps have been taken, though: less than a month after the fall of Viktor Yanukovich, the National Guard was established nominally as a reserve force “in case of war”. In reality, it was clear that it would be easier to start building anew than to try to repair the old command structure. However, with separatists on the offensive, there wasn’t enough time to fully consolidate this new structure, which lead to significant territorial losses.

Politics and diplomacy

Since both Croatia and Ukraine governments were decisively pro-western, their prevailing diplomatic strategy was internationalising the conflict, diplomatically involving the West to bring about a cessation of hostilities. For this reason, both called for the involvement of the UN and deployment of international troops and/or police in the conflict zones.

In both cases, however, the international response was lukewarm, to say the least, with endless treadmill of negotiations. In the case of Croatia, fifteen internationally brokered cease-fires were signed in less than six months, some of which were broken within minutes (a popular saying in Croatia at the time was “When they sign a cease-fire, it’s time to go to bomb-shelters”).

Although multilateral talks did not provide a short-term resolution, the increased diplomatic and material support which emerged was a significant factor contributing to the final Croatian victory.

Ukraine seems to be treading a similar path. Attempts to internationalise the conflict, calls for international peacekeeping and engineering an unconditional cease-fire seem to be the main focus of Ukrainian diplomatic efforts. The international response has been equally passive and indecisive as it was in the Croatian case, involving significant moral support without significant practical assistance. Again following the Balkan precedent, one concrete result has been persistently increasing, but questionably effective sanctions against Russia. As was also the case with Serbia, although economic damage has been caused, this has reinforced the Russian people’s resentment toward the West and its will to fight, whomever, wherever, whenever.


Military organisation and hardware

In both cases, the cause of the initial military defeats was unpreparedness of the standing national armies. However, as already stated, in the Croatian example, there were officially no armed forces to begin with, In Ukraine, however, a lack of organisation and the inability to cope with a rapidly changing political situation proved to be fatal. Furthermore, Ukraine had been a long-term strategic partner with Russia and before the events erupted the possibility to fight the former ally seemed highly unlikely.

Another important difference was the calibre of opponent. In Croatia the aggressor had full technical superiority, but rarely better training, if at all. The local rebel Serbs were not much more than ragtag local gangs and Serb civilians frightened by the prospect of Croatian independence, spiced up with the occasional nationalist or individual with military expertise. Beside them, the volunteer units imported from Serbia were not much more than the bands of untrained extremists whose main goals were opportunistic violence, looting or living out their nationalist fantasies. The only solid opposition came from the Yugoslav army whose tactics was based on Warsaw Pact-era priorities, having to reform itself along the way. It was obvious to everybody that, with Yugoslavia ceasing to exist, the purpose of this particular army ceased to exist, too.

In Ukraine, on the other hand, as with all dictatorships and failed states, the best supplied and maintained part of the armed forces was not the mainstream military, but the forces aimed at preserving the regime from its internal enemies. Special police – the Berkut – were heavily supported by the Yanukovich regime and were disproportionally recruited from Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, heavily influencing the final outcome of events. After the fall of Viktor Yanukovich, the remnants of these structures had a significant influence – if not the final say – in the success of the subsequent rebellion.[5] When the Russian volunteers, “vacation” volunteers and mainstream forces backed with armour and artillery came into play, the war turned out to be a Ukrainian army with moderately well-trained personnel, a mediocre assortment of weapons and not-too-competent leadership, fighting highly-skilled local separatists and very well-equipped Russian military forces with recent combat experience (primarily from Chechnya) who had both received significant investment by their respective governments in the previous ten years.

Morale and motivation

Another difference between the situations in the field was motivation. War in Croatia was strictly a conflict between homogenous national identities. The attacking forces committed ethnically-based atrocities and, on Croatian side, the war had been clearly represented as a struggle for national survival. This was confirmed by the fighting initially happening across Croatia – wherever there were Yugoslav army barracks. At a later stage, roughly a quarter of the country ended up occupied and an additional quarter within range of separatist artillery. The Serbian extremists’ publicly proclaimed goals of occupying more than half of Croatia helped this perception. All of this instilled Croatian fighters with the “victory or death” mentality and made them much more motivated, determined and stubborn which was, in the end, the main reason why a newly organised group hastily armed with weapons taken from captured barracks managed to withstand an all-out attack of an organised standing army with excellent logistic support.

Pro-Russian rebels, on the other hand, have not presented their fight as “war between nations”, but as an idealistically motivated war against a “junta and oligarchs” and without reference to ethnic cleansing.[6] Also, as Ukraine is much larger and the war is relatively much more localised (for now), losing limited amounts of territory would not create the same feeling of an existential threat as with their Balkan counterparts. This result would have important political consequences (even if the ramifications remain unclear), but at this moment the rebels control less than five percent of the area of Ukraine (not taking Crimea into account, the annexed peninsula representing another five percent) which is very far from threatening the existence of country as a political entity.


The course of war

The war in Croatia ended with a complete victory for the Croatian side. One of the factors that made this possible was the three-year truce enabling the Croatian Army and Croatia as a country to overcome its initial military disadvantage and catch up with the separatists. It should be noted that significant organisational help and staff training was provided by some western countries “under the table”, something Ukraine today can definitely count on and that is already coming into action. Additionally, a long period of peace had the result of the rebels losing their focus. A significant part of their ideology was “being anti-Croatian”. During the first round of war, this was clearly in front of them. However, life between 1992 and 1995 turned out to be bereft of both glory and adrenaline, leaving the reality of “freedom from Croatian oppression” a huge anti-climax. This fading of militarism was somewhat delayed by the ongoing war in Bosnia, but still, the population not directly involved in combat slowly came to realise that this was not the promised land they had been expecting. In the end, three and a half years after the cease-fire, the Croatian army took less than two days to break through the main rebel defence lines and 84 hours to completely annihilate the enemy, with the formal surrender being signed on the fifth day of the operation.

It is important to note that the three-year ceasefire occurred at the point where the Serbian military offensive lost its momentum and (or because) the Croatian army reached a crucial level of organisation and equipment. The Ukrainian armed forces may be nearing this turning point, but have not yet reached it. What is happening now is a race against time, different to that which happened in Croatian war: will the supplies and hardware run out before a sufficient level of organisation is achieved? With the last defeat at Debaltseve and tremendous losses in materiel – together with those incurred in the past months – it seems the time is running out. Some analysts have even expressed the view that – even without counting help from Russia – the rebel forces are now better equipped than the Ukrainians. However, this may not be the crucial factor because, as has been shown numerous times, it’s not only the hardware that wins wars; motivation, training and organisation all matter, aspects in which the rebels have had the upper hand from the beginning.

Buying time

Taking all this into account, the Ukrainian army, state and public should accept that the final liberation will not come through naked force and not any time soon. Furthermore, the longer the truce, the easier it will be for Ukrainian forces to make the final push. As Nikolay Mitrokhin, an expert in East European studies noted: “The Minsk agreements have not led to a complete ceasefire and even if they work (…) the war will continue. That is what the militants want because they cannot exist in peacetime: they don’t know how to deal with the social and economic challenges of peace, and they don’t want to give up what they see as the glory of war.” Simply, time is on Ukraine’s side.

However, to buy this time, Ukrainian forces need to establish a flexible and stubborn defence aimed not at defeating the enemy – which at this point is impossible just as it was impossible in Croatia in ’91 – or preserving specific points of territory – because, as it was shown, there is plenty of territory left; also, the terrain in Ukraine heavily favours mobile warfare, which was not the case in most of the Croatian theatre. Instead, the winning tactic should be flexibility, dissuading the enemy to continue with attacks by inflicting losses and making it possible for the rest of the country to rest, restructure, regroup and address its most important problem: the social and political structures that have deteriorated over the last 20 years. Significant causes of dissatisfaction of the civilian population in Donbas – that pushed a part of it to support the rebellion – were the dysfunction of the State and discontent with the power of the local oligarchs.

Paradoxically, the current situation has thrown the population from the frying pan into the fire, replacing a semi-functional oligarchy with a tribally organised mafiocracy that will be completely unable to meet the social needs of the average citizen. However, for this to become clear, a cease-fire needs to be achieved and the attention of the people drawn away from the conflict and politics to the economy and to everyday life. After they start to realise that their condition has actually deteriorated, it is very likely that whatever is left of the intellectual elite (if any) and more educated and specialised echelons of society will abandon the area en-masse, which will turn rebel provinces into a dump nobody will be eager to fight for, with or without Russian help.

As for the Russian military presence, there is a limit to how much Vladimir Putin will be able to commit. A long-term open war would probably have the same effect on Russia as the Afghanistan war had on USSR – a spark that ignited its collapse. Simply, Ukraine is too big to be completely defeated. Small Chechnya and Georgia were easy prey, but a long-term occupation of even a part of the second biggest country in Europe, with such hostile neighbours and a West agitated and unwilling to accept the incursion, may turn out to be more than Russia could chew.

The home front

However, the waiting game works both ways; the greatest danger for the Ukrainian side is that its people may also start to wonder if fighting is really necessary. It has been said that the main flaw of the state of Ukraine was that they weren’t able to completely form a nation, resulting in massive anti-Maidan pro-Russian protests that the rebellion started with. Looking at the Croatian example, the “glory days” of defence against a militarily superior aggressor and a shining military victory ended up with a country drowning in corruption and incompetence of most of its governments and an economic crisis which has only worsened in the twenty three years since independence.

This is connected with the main feature of those two conflicts, a political one representing both a similarity and a difference between Croatia and Ukraine. At the time of the war the state of Croatia was being established from scratch, with an uncertain future: a complete set of options wide open and a population willing to make sacrifices to make a better tomorrow happen. However, a number of people who were willing to give their lives for their homeland a quarter of a century ago were, in recent years, heard saying “if I knew it would end like this, I’d have grabbed my family and run across the border never to come back”. It might only be a cry of disappointment, but it shows that, if a similar war happened to Croatia today, the country would have had problems defending itself because, as was mentioned, its main advantage in the past was motivation and determination. Lucky, then, that the war happened twenty five years ago when determination was in abundance.

Ukraine today doesn’t have this advantage. It is already economically devastated, ripped off by oligarchs (in Croatia this class of people is referred to as “tycoons”) and plagued by doubts as to whether it is really important to fight for a country like this. (One of the statement reported by people in combat areas was “We don’t care whose flag we live under, we just want to live in peace”).

This war will not be won only in the field, but also on the homefront, by establishing a society that is worth fighting for and that will support those who fight for it. Whether this will happen in Ukraine is anybody’s guess. The event that started this whole chain of events – the Maidan revolution – showed that the people are able to take destiny into their own hands.

What they will do with it is another matter.

[1] Independent State of Croatia under Ante Pavelić and Ukrainian National Army under Stepan Bandera, both allied to the Third Reich, both participating in genocide against Jews and other ethnicities.

[2]In Croatia, one of the first decrees of the new government was stripping the 12-percent Serb minority from the status of a “constitutional nation”; in Ukraine, one of the first decisions of a new parliament was removing the possibility of Russian language being official, along with Ukrainian, in regions with significant Russian population. This decision was vetoed by the President less than 24 hours after it was brought.

[3] Some processes are still being held at Croatian courts and there is yet to be an official investigation of the actions some out-of-control units on the Ukrainian side were doing in some parts of Donbas.

[4] A drastic example of several of the mentioned issues – namely, loyalty and choosing competent commanders – was Denis Valentinovych Berezovsky, appointed commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Navy on March 1st 2014, defected to the Russian side on March 2nd 2014.

[5]One of the theories about the origins of rebellion in Donbas is that its main organisers were exactly the “second echelon” of the regime defence whose task was taking the country under control in case of wider riots. However, the regime collapsed more quickly than anticipated and this second echelon was left afloat, without orders. So, instead of performing their task, which was now impossible, they remained in stand-by and maintained a low profile so that, when the opportunity presented itself, they managed to organise and, with some help from the Russian intelligence circles, grab control over Donbas pretty quickly. However, their problem was that they were more of a police-intelligence structure, never a large-scale military force, so when the Ukrainian army started retaking large parts of territory, it took a Russian military intervention to save them from total military defeat.

[6] Among other things, the ethnic lines are not as clearly drawn in east Ukraine as they are in the Balkans. In the Croatian-Serbian conflict, the split was absolute: cultural, religious and linguistic; at the same time, both nations went through a religious transformation, becoming less secular in the process. In Ukraine, a large part of the Ukrainian population still speaks Russian as a first language, and much of the media broadcasts in Russian. Furthermore, even though the Orthodox churches are officially separate, the role of religion in the Ukrainian conflict was much less prominent than in the Balkans where the churches were fuelling the nationalist fervour without scruples.

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