The difference from the Yugoslav wars makes the dimension of the Russian attack on Ukraine clear. Russia’s war is an example of an identity panic that occurs when people are free to choose their identities. The battlefields of Ukraine will determine whether Europe emerges stronger from the war – or falls apart.
Empires don’t suddenly fall. It takes a long time for them to die, and after they die they tend to rise again from the grave. What is unfolding on the battlefields of Ukraine is the death of the last European empire. The specters of imperialism, anti-imperialism and post-nationalism simultaneously haunt Europe.
In this context, it is particularly important to look into the mirror of Yugoslavia if we want to see how the current war is shaping the EU’s new political identity.
Tito’s Yugoslavia was a product of the Cold War. It was a socialist country that stayed away from the Soviet bloc: a semi-open planned economy and a semi-democratic dictatorship. Yugoslavia was the poster child for a “third way” between communism and capitalism and an example of a multi-ethnic federation.
It was a strange mini-empire in which no republic was big enough to dominate the others, but many felt dominated. And the political, social and economic differences between the republics were visible to the naked eye.
Between 1991 and 1999, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and Albanians died
On the day the Berlin Wall fell, the majority of Western analysts were convinced that Yugoslavia was the Eastern European state best suited to join the European community.
Things turned out differently: Yugoslavia did not survive the end of the Cold War. Between 1991 and 1999, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and Albanians were killed, raped or tortured by their fellow citizens.
Millions of survivors have since left the region, and the Yugoslav identity itself has survived only outside the borders of the former national territory.
Yugoslavia wars triggered NATO’s first military intervention
And while Europeans and Americans were shocked to witness a major military conflict on the Old Continent, they quickly interpreted the hostilities as a specter from a past in which historical hatred and barbarous instincts were deeply rooted in the continent’s dark periphery.
The bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia has been compared to the “velvet divorce” of Czechoslovakia. There is no reason for a European panic, the argument goes, because what is happening in the Balkans has its origins in Balkan history and will stay in the Balkans.
The Yugoslav Wars triggered NATO’s first military intervention in the alliance’s history, but the wars never posed an existential threat to the West. The lesson that Americans and Europeans learned from this conflict is the need for a European order for the Post-Cold War era – as a global order based on different principles.
Destruction of international order is a key goal of Putin in Ukraine
The destruction of this very international order, supported by American military power and the attractiveness of the EU, is one of the main goals of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during his visit to Turkey in April: “Peace negotiations on Ukraine are possible only if they aim to create a ‘new world order’ without US domination.”
In Putin’s eyes, the liberal international order born in the Balkans, which puts the rights of the individual above the rights of the sovereign state, should be buried in Ukraine.
War in Ukraine is a war against Europe
To understand why the war in Ukraine is not a war in Europe but a war against Europe, it is helpful to outline the differences from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
To be sure, both wars are great human tragedies and both have reshaped the EU’s self-image and political identity, but their respective effects are very different. They differ in their scale, their political character and their impact on the future of Europe.
The Yugoslav wars were local wars, meaning there was no risk of dangerous spillover. While the fear that the Yugoslav scenario could be repeated in the post-Soviet space was always present in the minds of Western leaders in the early 1990s, by the end of the century, at the time of the NATO war in Kosovo, this fear was widespread evaporated.
Russia’s full-fledged war in Ukraine is a military clash between one of the Cold War superpowers, a permanent member of the UN Security Council armed with nuclear weapons, and a major European state like Ukraine, which has proven to the world that it is over has one of the best armies on the continent. The shelling of Ukraine today is on a par with that of 1942, but the country is holding out.
15 million Ukrainians no longer live where they did at the beginning of the war. European governments have spent 65 billion euros on supporting Ukraine and 700 billion euros on compensating their own people for the economic impact of the war (energy and other subsidies).
Urge for a post-liberal and multipolar world?
The Yugoslav Wars broke out at a time when the military power and political and economic superiority of the West were undisputed. The war was a test of the West’s will to bring order to chaos, rather than its ability to do so.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes at a time when the power of the West is being contested by both China and Russia – but also within the West itself – and when many countries in the Global South are welcoming the emergence of a post-liberal, multipolar world .
The challenge for the West in this conflict is not so much a test of its will as of its ability to defend its principles and its role in world politics.
Putin’s identity panic
The Yugoslav wars were primarily territorial wars. The leaders of the Balkan states harbored nineteenth-century dreams. Slobodan Milošević imagined a Greater Serbia and the unification of areas inhabited by Serbs. Croatian President Franjo Tuđman dreamed of a Greater Croatia.
“Why should I be a minority in your country when you can be a minority in mine” was the common logic of most politicians in the region. Ethnic cleansing was the central war strategy of the opposing parties.
Putin is waging war on identity
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not a territorial war. It is not a war of identities, but a war against identity. “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin’s infamous essay published in the summer of 2021 in which he claims that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people, makes it clear that the Kremlin wants the very existence of a Ukrainian nation and rejects a Ukrainian identity.
For Putin, Ukrainians are Russians who should be forced to see themselves as Russians. Putin’s war is not aimed at exclusion, but at genocidal inclusion of a nation.
Ethnic cleansing was the central war strategy of the opposing parties in Yugoslavia.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is an example of the identity panic that arises in a world where people are free to choose their own identities and no identity can be taken for granted. It is a world in which Ukrainians can choose not to be Russian or, even more, to be anti-Russian.
In such a world, according to Putin’s logic, who can guarantee that there will still be Russians in the next century?
The Russian invasion was sparked by an explosive mix of demographic fears and cultural insecurities. Russia’s war has elevated identity politics to the center of international relations, reshaping not only Ukrainian and Russian identities but also the EU’s identity.
The moment Russia launched its invasion of Kiev, the key premises on which the Europeans had built their security were under attack. Overnight, economic interconnection transformed from a source of security into a source of insecurity.
The fact that Europe sourced most of its gas from Russia not only did not harm Moscow’s imperial ambitions, but also enabled Putin to put pressure on European economies.
Will European unity survive?
Confronted with Russia’s aggression, Europeans have been forced to recognize that their long-standing unwillingness to invest in their military capabilities has endangered them and that Europe has become entirely dependent on the United States for its security. On the day the war began, the Ukrainians had artillery shells for six weeks – Germany for two days.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped, at least temporarily, to reconcile the post-imperial identity of the European West and the anti-imperial identity of the European East. To defend EU sovereignty and values, the Germans and French identified with the Ukrainian national liberation movement, while Polish nationalists turned their backs on their obsession with ethnic homogeneity and opened the borders to millions of Ukrainian refugees.
More than that, Ukraine’s heroic resistance has forced Europeans to question their romance with post-heroic societies. One legacy of the Yugoslav Wars was the European belief that nationalism had no positive role to play in Europe’s future. Most Europeans tend to agree with the German poet Bertolt Brecht, who felt pity for nations in need of heroes.
Ukraine’s military success can be crucial for strengthening European unity.
The battlefields of Ukraine will determine whether Europe emerges stronger or falls apart
The magic that lies in the mobilization of Ukrainian civil society has forced many Europeans to change their views and drawn attention to the dark spots in Brecht’s halo. If Kiev was flooded with EU flags in the days of the Maidan Revolution, at the beginning of March 2022 the European capitals were dressed in the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag.
The question is: can European unity outlast the Ukrainian moment, considering that it is simultaneously both a European moment and a moment of statehood? Ukraine’s military success can be crucial for strengthening European unity. But if Donald Trump wins the 2024 US presidential election, it would most likely collapse.
With the attack on Kiev, the pillars of European security policy to date have broken. Europe’s security is entirely dependent on the USA. The Europeans’ self-image as post-heroic societies is beginning to waver. The battlefields of Ukraine will determine whether Europe emerges stronger from this war or falls apart.