“…Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
-Walter Benjamin, [from] Thesis VI, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940)
It may be purely coincidental that the Serbia-Kosovo tensions have revived, but whether or not it is coincidental, it is also highly symbolic and substantively significant. If the Russian Federation does not wish to suffer the fate of the Yugoslav federation and if Russia does not wish to be Serbia, it has to do whatever it takes to avoid the Serbian-type military outcome that Ukraine and the collective West wish to inflict upon it in the Donbass and through the Donbass in the Russian federation as a whole.
Ideally this means Russia must prevail in the Donbass war but what does this mean? Realistically it could mean the establishment of a de-militarized zone (DMZ) as at the end of the Korean war. However, this may also be a false hope because the Ukrainian drone attack on the Russian airfield, coming on top of the second massive package of funding that the US legislature has granted Ukraine is clear proof that attacks could be launched on Russia from behind a DMZ.
Let us leave this complication aside for a moment and return to the relevance of the Serbian fate for contemporary Russia.
Many things are fairly obvious, but some things are not. Let me first itemize what is obvious. The NATO war on Yugoslavia was the clearest evidence of what the West wanted the post-Cold War World Order to be. It really wasn’t about the Soviet Union or the post-Soviet space.
Yugoslavia was never part of the USSR and therefore was not part of the post-Soviet space. Yugoslavia had always defended itself against Soviet Russia, mainly under Stalin. Its defence posture and doctrine was mainly intended at deterring an attack from Russia, not so much the USA or NATO. Yugoslavia was not a Cold war enemy of the USA or the west. It was a pioneering Nonaligned country. And yet, NATO bombed that country out of existence.
The Yugoslav outcome also revealed the relative irrelevance of history and civilization in the conduct of imperialism. Serbia helped the Allies considerably during WWII. Serbia was Christian while Bosnia and Kosovo were mainly Islamic in civilizational and cultural terms. NATO helped Bosnia and Kosovo and bombed Serbia. Those who hope to resist Western imperialism while looking at the world and the enemy through religio-civilizational philosophical lenses will never defeat imperialism or be able to successfully resist it.
What was at stake in the destruction of Yugoslavia was the principle that in the post-Soviet era, only the West, led by the USA could and would decide on the legitimate use of violence by a state, whether it was outside its recognized borders or within it. That was the true translation of “unipolar”: the West decides on war and peace.
This was the global application of the definition of Max Weber, of the state wielding a monopoly of the legitimate use of force. In the post- Cold War world, the USA was the only such state, with all other states being reduced in status to ‘subaltern states’ or simply, ‘sub-states’.
Thus, the US and NATO prevented the Yugoslav state from using force within borders recognized by the United Nations so as to protect those borders and that state. Hypocritically, the US and NATO crushed this universally accepted norm by waging war on and in a sovereign national space and did so while also invading and destroying countries, states, far beyond its borders; states which were no threat to the US and its national interests (e.g., Iraq).
This would have been the world order if not for Russia’s reassertion a decade after the demolition of Yugoslavia. It will also be the world order of the future if Russia is defeated in the Donbass and might I say, Crimea.
Many Russian readers may agree with me up to this point, but will find what I am about to say, less agreeable. The deepest lesson of Yugoslavia is that it foredoomed itself to defeat by the shift in its own thinking. That shift has also taken place in Russia.
Yugoslavia was militarily impregnable. Even Stalin was deterred from taking any military action against it though he commanded the Red Army which had been victorious in WWII. The reason was the politico-military model implemented by Marshal Joseph Broz Tito. This was the model of partisan warfare at which he had excelled in, fighting the Nazis, holding down many divisions. Tito turned his partisan experience into a military doctrine of national defence. The Yugoslav army, which had become a conventional military, was nonetheless successfully configured to fight a partisan war of indefinite resistance.
The military deterrent capacity of Yugoslavia did not exist in a vacuum. It was organically integrated with his version of socialism (“self-management’) and reconstruction of the Yugoslav under the leadership of the League of Communists, of a successful federal, multinational state.
With Tito’s death and Slobodan Milosevic’s ascent to power as head of the Serbian socialist party (there was no more LCY), the paradigm changed—and it changed to something that would be familiar to Russian readers. The Serbian nationalists in civil society, small nationalist parties and finally within the Serbian Socialist party itself argued that socialism and federalism had been exceedingly unfavourable to the Serbian majority. They hinted that Tito, a Croat and a Communist, didn’t really care about the Serbian nation. Thus, it was that the Serbians began to dismantle Tito model.
The happenings in Kosovo today, indeed the very birth of Kosovo, midwifed by the West in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions can be traced back to the speech made by Slobodan Milosevic in which he virtually tore into shreds the Titoist multinational notion of Yugoslavia and unveiled the nationalist Serbian version which the ultranationalists had been peddling. This was the infamous speech in which he claimed, perhaps accurately, that Kosovo Polje was the seed-bed and seat of greater Serbian civilization.
Having essentially survived NATO’s air-war, the dug-in Yugoslav military could have inflicted heavy casualties on the NATO forces but did not draw them out on the ground to fight the war it had been trained for.. That is because the dominant doctrine of Serbia had disowned the Titoist paradigm of which his military doctrine was an aspect. What had been uploaded in its place was a post-Titoism which was actually pre-Titoism; a pre-WWII Serbian nationalism which did not have the capacity to fight and defeat imperialism. Pre-WW II Yugoslavia was a thin construct. It took Titoism and the partisan experience to turn it into a strong multinational socialist federation with an army capable of credibly deterring the West and the East. Without it, Serbian nationalism was simply not ideologically armed, conceptually equipped, to defeat imperialism in a protracted war, as Yugoslavia’s friend Vietnam had done.
Russia under Yeltsin took the same road as Serbia under Milosevic. Has it completely abandoned that road and begun to return to the correct one? To put my question in rather dramatic terms, in order to prevail over imperialism on the Ukrainian front, the Russian Army will have to fight like the Red Army did.
The imperialist strategy against Russia has been what it was since 1917. Imperialism is quintessentially the same; there is a long continuity in their protracted conflict, but Russia is no longer the same. Russia which successfully resisted this imperialist strategy as Soviet Russia and with the Red Army, is no longer that Russia.
To save Russia itself from the Ukrainian-spearheaded US/NATO grand strategy, i.e., the grand strategy of imperialism, the Russian Army will have to fight like – become – the Red Army again. Can an Army be expected to fight like the Red Army, with the ‘Red’ having been deleted, and substituted by an ideology and paradigm, the very overthrow of which and battle against which gave birth to the Red Army?