THE BLOG

Putin, Al-Sisi, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Holocaust Remembrance

02/18/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

In another of his pleasant encounters with world leaders, Russian president Vladimir Putin went to Egypt on February 8, staying until February 10. Meeting with Cairo's military strongman Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Putin bestowed on his host a macabre but perhaps characteristic gift: a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle. According to media, the present was a token of cooperation in a billion-dollar arms sale by Moscow, which must contend with Western sanctions over Ukraine and a resulting economic downturn. Russia will assist Egypt further, in constructing its first nuclear power plant.

The visit was not a first for either man. Putin had gone to Egypt before, and Al-Sisi traveled to Moscow last year. Reuters reported about the recent meeting, "The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would discuss the situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Put more bluntly, Putin would confer with the Egyptians about two crisis regions where Russia has an extended and sinister history of meddling: the Palestinian territories and Syria. Russia has long supported Arab radicalism against Israel, and is a leading backer of the bloody regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. In the past, under its previous military dictator, Nasser, Egypt nearly became a full-fledged Soviet satellite on the Cuban model.

Al-Sisi, by contrast with Putin, is a declared enemy of Al-Assad. Frequently in history, however, tyrants have allowed their similariities to overcome their differences.

In the London Financial Times of February 10, Middle East expert David Gardner argued that Putin and Al-Sisi have "illiberal" (i.e. autocratic) tendencies in common, while sharing "implacable hostility to any form of Islamism." Here, too, Russian calculations are Machiavellian. Moscow trumpets its opposition to radical Islam and claims status as a leading force opposing it. Still, most Russian activities in this area, over the past 37 years, have targeted ordinary, non-extremist Muslims, rather than Wahhabi or pro-Iranian radicals.

Moscow failed in its war against the Afghans; devastated Chechnya, and permits wide-scale gang terrorism against "blacks" (i.e. Asian or Caucasian Muslims) who live in the major Russian cities.

On February 13, the FT, to its considerable credit, produced an extensive analysis of "Minsk II," the meeting in Belarus last week led by Putin, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and French president François Hollande. The conference was intended to craft a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. FT correspondents Neil Buckley in London, Kathrin Hille in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev admitted a point that a very few close observers of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have anticipated since fighting began there a year ago. The FT staffers wrote, "Russia has pressed for Ukraine to shift to an extremely loose federal structure similar to that agreed for Bosnia in the 1995 Dayton Agreement -- which ended the Bosnian conflict but produced a politically dysfunctional state."

On the op-ed page of the FT the same day, Philip Stephens offered an ominous series of parallels between the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with imposition of a fraudulent "Republic of Serbs" on its occupied territory, and the planting of ethnic-Russian "people's republics" in the Ukrainian districts of Luhansk and Donetsk. Stephens noted of the Minsk talks, "For old hands at the Munich Security conference this month the argument about whether to supply defensive weapons to Kiev carried echoes of the 1990s Balkan wars. Then the Bosnians were overrun by marauding Serbs. Now Ukraine is buckling under the military might of a revanchist Russia. The debate has simmered since Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the dispatch of Russian forces to mobilise separatists in eastern Ukraine."

Stephens went on, "A UN arms embargo imposed on the former Yugoslavia locked in the military advantage of the Serbs. As the Bosnians were cut down, the west was split about whether to exempt them from the ban. Then, as now, the U.S. and Europe had resolved to keep their own forces out of the fight. The Bosnians, one side argued, had the right of self-defense. If the west stood back, the least it could do was even up the fight. Bosnia, after all, had been recognized by the UN as a sovereign state. Slobodan Milošević's Serbia had no incentive to come to the negotiating table while it was advancing on the battlefield. So ethics and realpolitik gave the same answer. On the other side many said that arming the Bosnians would simply level up the killing field. The Serbs would step up their attacks and new weaponry would dissuade the Bosnians from negotiating. And could the west draw such a neat line between arming Bosnia and sending in its own forces? What about mission creep?... The lessons from the Balkans are salutary. The UN embargo was left in place and the slaughter continued apace. Milošević was forced to the negotiating table by direct NATO intervention after the Serbian massacre of civilians at Srebrenica."

Bosnian Muslim forces wanted peace, not war (much less a jihad), and never crossed Serbia's recognized borders, the Serbs backed down when faced with a serious challenge, after much delay, in 1995, and the Serbs capitulated again in 1999 when NATO forces came to the aid of the Kosovar Albanians. The only effect of the arms embargoes was to stack up Bosnian Muslim and Kosovar Albanian corpses. Almost no Western troops died fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo. The "missions" in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo led by the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) "crept" to a role as unpopular foreign parasites despised by those they "rescued," for their pro-Serbian proclivities and arbitrary interference in local decision-making. NATO came out of it all looking somewhat better.

Unfortunately for Ukrainians, as I have written elsewhere, the UN, EU, and OSCE will be charged with restoring the integrity of their frontiers. Many argued during the Bosnian and Kosovo wars that Europe had turned its back on them because of the Muslim plurality in the first country and majority in the second. But Muslims are a small group in Ukraine - mostly Tatars in violated Crimea.

Back in the Balkans, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić marked Holocaust Memorial Day, on January 27, 2015, by inquiring into the background of the genocide of European Jews. He suggested that for Hitler's followers, "the biggest threat was seen in the Jewish people, probably on the account of their characteristics and being prominent in the prestigious professions in the domains of finances, art and science." Eight Serbian human rights groups objected to the anti-Jewish stereotype.

Certain things do not change in the vast lands ruled and overshadowed by Moscow. Putin and his Stalinesque chorus of domestic and foreign champions have accused Ukrainians repeatedly of a coup by "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites" against his crony, Viktor Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, the Jewish civil rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League, on February 3, 2015, protested against statements by the Russian secessionist bosses in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian Aleksandr Zakharchenko from Donetsk denounced the Kiev government as run by "miserable Jews." Zakharchenko was flanked by Igor Plotnitsky from Luhansk, as the former delivered this judgement.

Despots run wild, disadvantaged nations are crushed, minorities are vilified, but the great and the good can be counted on to speak - and not to act. The Holocaust and the suffering of the Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians seem to provide a paradigm for history's ongoing nightmares. Is this God's world?