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Blood Brothers: Milosevic and Putin

04/21/2014 10:21 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2014

Slobodan Milosevic and Vladimir Putin are cut from the same cloth. Just as the West's experience with Milosevic can inform its approach to Putin, diplomacy during the Yugoslav crisis can inform strategies for dealing with Russia today.

The political careers and tactics of Milosevic and Putin are parallel. Neither was democratically elected. Serbia's President, Ivan Stambolic, appointed Milosevic to head Serbia's Communist Party. A few years later, Stambolic was murdered and Milosevic took his job. Putin was backed by Boris Yeltsin to succeed him as Russia's president in 1999.

Milosevic and Putin consolidated their power by exploiting ethnic conflict. Milosevic appealed to the victimization and humiliation of Serbs, declaring martial law in Kosovo and attacking Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Putin attacked Chechnya, razing Grozny, and declaring direct rule from Moscow in 2000.

Both used history and religion to manipulate emotions. Milosevic arranged for the bones of Prince Lazar, who was defeated by the Ottoman Army in Kosovo Polje on June 28, 1389, to be disinterred from the Ravanica Monastery and toured around Serbia. He proclaimed that the organ pipes of the Decani Monastery in Kosovo were forged from the swords of Serbian nobility slain in battle. According to Milosevic, "One time we were brave and dignified, and one of the few who went into battle undefeated. Six centuries later, we are again in battles and quarrels."

Putin also highlighted historical injustice to rile Russians. He told the Federal Assembly on March 18, 2014: "Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus." Putin condemned encroachment "next to our homeland or in territories that were historically ours."

Milosevic and Putin were adept at propaganda. Serbia's state-controlled media repeatedly characterized Albanians as "Shiptars," a derogatory slur. Bosnian Muslims were called "Turks" and mujahedeen." Milosevic linked Croatia's pro-democracy forces in the 1990s with the Ustase Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet regime let by Ante Pavelic during World War II.

Russia's state media has likewise been unrelenting in its criticism of the new authorities in Kiev. In an interview with hand-picked journalists, Putin maintained: "Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup." He described them as the ideological heirs to Anton Bandera, Hitler's Ukrainian accomplice.

Milosevic and Putin conjure conspiracies. Milosevic railed against NATO's 1999 military action in Kosovo. Putin complained, "[The West] lied to us many times, took decisions behind our backs, and presented us with an accomplished fact." He feels betrayed by NATO's expansion to the East, its welcome to countries on Russia's borders, and the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to former Warsaw Pact countries.

Both Milosevic and Putin embrace irredentism. Milosevic's project was to create a greater Serbia from the ashes of Yugoslavia. As a result, more than one hundred thousand people died and millions were displaced during the death of Yugoslavia.

Putin believes that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the Soviet Union's demise. "Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."

Putin is seeking to restore Imperial Russia, reunifying lost territory where Russians reside. "Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other." Putin uses the term "Novorossiya" or "New Russia" when referring to parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. "Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times. They were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows."

Both advanced their insidious agenda through paramilitaries. Milosevic sponsored Chetnik gangs in Serb populated regions of Bosnia and Croatia. His proxies declared the Republika Srspska in Bosnia and the Serbian Republic of Krajina in Croatia. Arkan and his "Tigers," backed by Belgrade, led murderous assaults on Bijeljina and Zvornik terrorizing civilians and driving them from their homes. Milosevic claimed they were acting on their own. However, he was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for atrocities committed by surrogates under his control.

Putin maintains that unmarked troops in Crimea were spontaneously organized self-defense forces made up of concerned citizens. "Volunteers" seized government buildings in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. They were well-equipped with brand new Kalashnikovs, shoulder launched missiles, and state-of-the art communications gear. Putin disavows ties to paramilitaries who declared the People's Republic of Donetsk." Will Putin end up in the dock like Milosevic, indicted by the ICC for war crimes committed by Russian military intelligence under his control?

Understanding parallels between Milosevic and Putin can also inform strategies for preventing the escalation of deadly violence in Ukraine, and deterring Russia's further cross-border aggression.

I served as counselor to the Bosnian delegation to the London Conference of August 26-27, 1992. What happened last week at peace talks between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU in Geneva bears striking similarity with events in London 22 years ago.

The Bosnian delegation was promised peace. Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger and British Prime Minister John Major offered airtight sanctions. They also proposed to sequester artillery shelling Sarajevo. Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic protested: "These are just words. We have no guarantees. My people are being slaughtered every day." Major replied, "You have my word of honor. If the shelling of Sarajevo does not stop in 30 days, the Royal Air Force will be overhead."

Milosevic and the Serb delegation agreed to demands of the international community, just as Russia promised to use its influence to remedy the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Both lied. Better rope-a-dope than confrontation.

Bosnia offers three fundamental lessons about diplomacy:

  1. Deadlines are mandatory.
  2. Agreements must be monitored.
  3. Enforcement is critical.

Milosevic rhetorically acceded to the West's demands, while Serbia consolidated its gains on the battlefield. Like Milosevic, Putin is buying time. And like Milosevic, Putin is counting on trans-Atlantic divisions to undermine a coherent international response.

Both Milosvic and Putin are cunning and crafty. Last week's Geneva agreement established that "all sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation, or provocative action." Predictably, Russian-backed paramilitaries ignored Russia's entreaties to lay down their arms, lift roadblocks, and cease illegally occupation of government buildings. They are goading the Ukrainian Government to use force. This is just what Putin wants. Geneva established the terms to justify Russia's overt military intervention.

Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is author of "Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention".