Vladimir Putin's creeping assault on Ukraine continues. With a quick strike invasion, Russian conventional and special operations forces bit off Crimea, annexed it, and then waited. This week, ethnic Russian agitators in eastern Ukraine marched on camera, building barricades and demanding political unification with Mother Russia. One group in Donetsk demanded the Kremlin send "temporary" peacekeeping troops.
We've seen this script before, in another Slav-versus-Slav war featuring calculated, creeping aggression in pursuit of coveted territory. Serbia's loathsome dictator, Slobodan Milosevic -- who at the time still called himself the leader of Yugoslavia -- used the same "creeping" operational technique in 1991 when Serbia attacked Croatia in the opening rounds of Yugoslavia's war of dissolution.
Landlocked, Serbia's offensive thrust, focusing on the Croat seaport of Dubrovnik, combined attacks by conventional military forces and special operations troops with on-camera political provocations by ethnic Serb agitators.
The Russians seized Sevastopol with ease. The Serb offensive, however, met stiff resistance on Dubrovnik's outskirts. The Serbs began shelling the historic seaport with heavy artillery, which led to an international outcry. Though the Cold War was waning, and the Soviet Union would officially dissolve in December 1991, Serb-Croat combat was Slav-versus-Slav. In 1991 Ukraine and Russia both had nuclear weapons. A Ukrainian-Russian Slavic clash could have radioactive consequences.
In an essay written for the Dallas Morning News (Nov. 21, 1991) I argued that Milosevic had to be stopped. His goal as an old but dangerous European if not panhuman evil: the creation of a "Greater (fill in the blank) state." In Milosevic's case it was Greater Serbia. Creating Greater Serbia would secure Milosevic's on power and cement his move from "red to brown," from Communist red fascist to ultra-nationalist ethnic fascist. I didn't mention Adolf Hitler's Greater Germany, Gross Deutschland, just implied it.
The essay contended that "Yugoslavia's breakdown has become a political laboratory for Europe and the UN, each bloody day asking The Question: 'How do we deal with the historical fragmentation resulting from the end of the Cold War?'" Permitting aggressive war by vicious thugs such as Milosevic was not the answer, for "unchecked Serbian warmaking encourages pocket fascists in Eastern Europe and the USSR who would use civil war as a means of gaining power." Well, Russian ethno-nationalists were already banging their drums.
Effective diplomacy to deter these war creators required coordinated action by the Western powers to demonstrate that "Europe and the UN stand for evolutionary rather then revolutionary change in the political order." However, " ... the European nations had done little more than kvetch and cajole the Serbs with rhetoric and threats of economic sanctions." Not much different from 2014, eh?
The 1991 essay's description of Serbia's creeping war also has 2014 echoes: "They attack, take a niche of Croatia, halt and wait for the international community's diplomatic rhetoric to subside. Then they attack again."
Putin has a strategic savvy Milosevic lacked. He also possesses nuclear weapons -- this is a major advantage. In 1994 Ukraine signed the Budapest Accord and gave up its nukes in exchange for territorial security assurances by Russia, the U.S. and Great Britain. In 2014, Putin's nuclear Russia ignored the Budapest Accord and seized no-nuke Ukraine's Crimea. Hey, peaceniks -- no nukes!
Though well-supplied with ammunition, Serbia had limited fuel reserves and no money. The Serb-Croat war stalemated; economic weakness contributed to the stalemate.
Shrewd Putin controls vast energy reserves on which his Ukrainian enemy and European critics depend. Last week, Russia jacked by the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas; one source reported the jack was 80 percent. Forget creeping? That's a gouging war of economic aggression.
The aftermath of the NATO's 1999 Kosovo War eventually drove Milosevic from power. He died, confronting war crimes charges. Kosovo, however, remains a cause celebre for many Serbian and Russian Slavs, including Putin.
Former KGB agent Putin, like Milosevic, has made the transition from red to brown, but much more successfully. In a speech delivered in Red Square on March 18, after the annexation of Crimea, Putin told an adoring crowd: "We have done a lot together, but we will do much more. So many tasks, but I'm sure we will overcome everything. Glory to Russia."
Greater Russia, led by its shrewd czar-commissar, is on the march.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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