Russian Oligarch's Balkan-Style Gambit in Ukraine

07/28/2014 11:36 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2014

On July 25, the London Financial Times published a lengthy and fascinating report dealing with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Courtney Weaver, a Moscow staffer for the newspaper, described how Konstantin V. Malofeev, a Russian Orthodox Christian billionaire little known in the West, traveled to Sevastopol, on the southwest coast of the Crimean Peninsula, in January of this year. Malofeev had gone to the Crimean port and naval base unintentionally, when his airplane was forced to land in bad weather.

Malofeev went to Sevastopol some weeks prior to the arrival there of Russian soldiers. In March, Crimea was annexed by Russia. According to the Financial Times, Malofeev is "a key figure linking the pro-Russia forces on the ground in Ukraine and the political establishment in Moscow."

The 40-year-old oligarch's journey to Sevastopol took place, in the FT account, during a pilgrimage with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, from Moscow through Belarus, to end in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. The group, under the rubric of the "St. Basil the Great Charity Foundation," which is headed by Malofeev, exhibited relics borrowed from the Orthodox monastic complex of Mount Athos in Greece. The religious artifacts are known as "the Gifts of the Wise Men to the Newborn Jesus." The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS portrayed the objects as those mentioned traditionally at Christmas: 28 small plates of decorated gold, and 70 olive-shaped lumps of frankincense and myrrh.

ITAR-TASS stated that the "Gifts" had been deposited first in Byzantium, or Constantinople, and that after that city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the "Gifts" were moved to Mount Athos by a Serbian Orthodox nun named Mary.

When the sojourners landed unexpectedly at Sevastopol, Malofeev told the FT, 100,000 believers turned out to pray. The worshippers counted a third of the population in the area, and Malofeev asserted, "It was one prayer from all the people: for Sevastopol to once more be part of Russia... God's will." This claim seems irrational when one considers that the Orthodox Christian faith is not exclusively Russian, and that the largest number of Ukrainian believers, including many who oppose Russian power, are Orthodox Christians. But what appears as unreason may be deliberate manipulation.

Malofeev and Kirill's exercise in evangelism has a disturbing echo for those who recall the events preceding the bloody wars in ex-Yugoslavia during the 1990s. In 1989, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic went to Gazimestan, a location in Kosovo, on the 600th anniversary of the battle fought there between Christians and Muslims. Preceding the event at Gazimestan, the bodily remains of Serbian Prince Lazar, who died in the Kosovo battle and was elevated to sainthood by the Serbian Orthodox Church, were taken around Serbian areas of the former Yugoslavia as a pretext for nationalist rallies. Milosevic's Gazimestan speech, attended by as many as a million Serbs transported by bus in Yugoslavia and coming from abroad, stressed Serbian grievances.

A traveling display of symbolic Orthodox Christian memorabilia, as a ploy to stir up ethnic emotions, is not the only item that Russian extremists intervening in Ukraine have in common with their Serbian counterparts. As I have argued since the annexation of Crimea, Moscow appears to be operating in Ukraine based directly on the strategy of Milosevic and his cohort.

Thus, Putin supported the detachment from rule by Kiev, and proclamation of "people's republics," in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, on the pretext of protecting Russians from Ukrainians. In the same manner, Milosevic attempted the division of Croatia and accomplished the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina through creation of "Serb republics" - that in Bosnia continues to exist, and efforts continue to implant a similar separate, Serbian authority in northern Kosovo.

Putin claims that the Ukrainian government is "fascist" and reflects pro-Nazi politics during the second world war. Milosevic used the same demagogic vocabulary against the leaders of Croatia, the Bosnian Muslims, and the Kosovar Albanians.

Putin accuses the Ukrainians of acting for the U.S., which, in Russian media, is depicted as a "fascist" country seeking, with the European Union, to diminish Moscow's power. Milosevic and his propaganda machine blamed America and Germany for a supposed conspiracy to break up Yugoslavia.

On July 26, the day after the Financial Times profile of Malofeev appeared, a correspondent for the newspaper, Guy Chazan, wrote in the same newspaper's weekend news section about the opening of "a number of mass graves" in and close by Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that was occupied by pro-Russian irregular forces from mid-April until the first week of July. The dead, Chazan declared, were "thought to be victims of pro-Russian rebels."

Such carnage is the aspect of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s that remains most prominent in global memory. On July 11, 2014, 175 more bodies were interred at the immense graveyard in Srebrenica, site of the worst homicidal incident of the Bosnian war. There and at neighboring locations 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serbian forces in 1995.

Step by step, Russia is following the path of Milosevic, from mobilization based on religious rhetoric to gross atrocities. But Russia is bigger and bolder than Serbia. World opinion increasingly points to Russian personnel in Ukraine as responsible for the annihilation of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 (MH17), on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, an act of which Serbia was probably incapable.

The shooting down of MH17 has already had significant effects in Western Europe, where the Netherlands, which lost the greatest number of dead in the episode, has called for stronger sanctions against Russia. Russians who support adventures in Ukraine should recall that the Netherlands includes The Hague, where Milosevic and other plotters of aggression against Serbia's neighbors have been imprisoned, tried, and sentenced.

When Serbia found that Milosevic was an impediment to its campaign to regain world respect, it sent the architect of genocidal crimes to The Hague. Russia's elite may decide the same about Putin -- especially after the ghastly circumstances surrounding the destruction of MH17 -- and dump him as a liability... if they can.