For Croats worldwide, the Ukraine crisis should be hitting close to home in many ways. Croatians in the diaspora and homeland alike can remind themselves of our national histories and wars to know how to best support Ukraine in these trying times. Both countries have had eastern neighbours that have caused us great suffering, but what is most telling are the similarities to how the wars are happening.
To begin his invasion, Putin delivered a horrifying speech. He essentially stated that the nation-state of Ukraine was a mistake and that he would fix it militarily. This immediately should remind Croatians of their proclamation of independence in 1991 after a free and fair referendum in which 97% of Croats voted to leave Yugoslavia and form their own independent nation-state. Then, Slobodan Milosević drew on imperialist Serbian nationalism to stoke the flames of war. Much like Putin, he saw his western neighbour’s independence as a threat to his own goals as a leader. However, while Putin is trying to re-create an empire, Milosevic was trying to hold a crumbling one together.
Fighting in Vukovar was a hard war to sell to the Yugoslavian people; after all, the creation myth of Yugoslavia was a fraternity of nations with similar languages and cultures bonded together with socialist ideals under a common flag. There were mass desertions, disobedience, and overall low morale for what seemed like a pointless war to kill brothers in the initial mobilisation for war. It was not until Milosevic started making accusations that fascists ran the newly independent Croatia and that the Western powers (USA and Germany) were trying to steal Croatia away that popular support for his war began. This also is a common thread with Ukraine, as Putin has claimed that Ukraine is run by Nazis, when in fact, their president is Jewish whose relatives suffered in the holocaust. This is similar to Croatia, whose president Tuđman was a former Yugoslavian general who fought against the fascists. De-Nazification is another excuse made by these imperialists to fuel wars against democracies like Ukraine and Croatia.
The Battle of Vukovar is a tragic tale of heroism that stands uniquely in the history of Croatia’s war for independence and might be the template of what is to come in Ukraine’s Eastern regions. Without significant arms, outnumbered 20 to 1, and with no artillery or aerial support, the Croatian defenders in Vukovar held out for 87 days. The city received the worst bombing in the history of combat operations; per square metre, Vukovar was bombed worse than Stalingrad. Hundreds of civilians were killed in these bombing operations using unguided munitions. The same is already happening in numerous Ukrainian cities, with nearly 400 civilian casualties reported in just the first four days of combat.
Similarly, Ukrainian troops are outnumbered and outmatched in terms of equipment. Military experts believe that the Russian army’s tactics are about to get far uglier. And their worst fears are that Ukraine may become a victim of many Vukovar-like artillery campaigns with massive civilian casualties. This is concerning for us all as the Russian army is far better equipped for mass devastation than the Yugoslavian army of 1991.
However, we should also remember the aftermath of the Battle for Vukovar. With an army fuelled by Nazi rhetoric, occupation troops embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing, killing hundreds, including women, sick, and elderly in Ovcara, believing they were liberating the world of evil. There are already reports on the ground that Russian occupation troops are in cities looking to assassinate critical targets. This is even before any major city has been fully captured. With the likely capture of cities in the coming weeks likely, the execution of the so-called “kill lists” publicly released by the USA will be actioned, with devastating mass causalities. The liberation-from-Nazis rhetoric of both Milosević and Putin are direct precedents for mass war crimes and terror against the civilian population at large. What is scarier in the case of Ukraine is the sheer scale of terror that will be employed in many more cities.
Our concern must translate into lobbying our governments in the diaspora and homeland to send more aid to help the Ukrainian cause and prevent such tragedies from ever occurring again. Unfortunately, we Croats know all too well what can happen when overwhelming military force combined with imperialist nationalism does. Nevertheless, we can do our part to help Ukrainians avoid a similar fate to Ovcara and Vukovar.
Croatians fought for their freedom and won against all odds. We have a unique understanding of their plight with troubles coming from the East. We have the Battle of Vukovar, and its aftermath etched in our memories. We would do well to remember to push our government to do more in supporting the Ukrainians. My greatest fear is that nearly every major city in Ukraine’s East is a potential Vukovar due to military, politics, geography, and cultural circumstances. We must do what is right and push our governments to do even more in defending the freedom of an independent nation from wanton barbarism from the East.
Stefan Karlo Rajic has a master’s in international relations, specialising in Eastern European politics, focusing on Ukraine-Russia relations from 1991.
For more, check out our politics section.