Bosnia the blueprint for Russian tactics in Donbas

The Bosnian war gave the world its own lexicon of violent conflict. Four words in that lexicon resonate today

The ghosts of Bosnia are haunting the war in Ukraine. The images that fill our screens nightly – fierce artillery exchanges, fleeing civilians, refugees and destroyed cities – are all too familiar to the generation that lived through the war in Bosnia from April 1992 to December 1995. Some of the reporters are the same. Over those 45 months close to 100,000 people lost their lives. Half of Bosnia’s population of over four million were forced from their homes. The war scarred a generation and left a once united country partitioned and impoverished.

The Bosnian war gave the world its own lexicon of violent conflict. Seen as the return of Europe’s past by some, Bosnia’s war now looks like a dark harbinger of its future. Four words in that lexicon resonate today.

The first is the most famous expression associated with the collapse of Yugoslavia: “ethnic cleansing”. The term is older than the war in Bosnia but was publicised by it because it encapsulated the goal of the paramilitary forces attacking Bosnia’s multiethnic towns in 1992. Ethnic cleansing involved the deliberate destruction of multiethnic places to create purified territories. When I was researching the war years later former warlords turned local politicians described it with an even more euphemistic phrase: demographic engineering.

This is what Russia and its proxies are trying to do in southeastern Ukraine. Nowhere outside the areas they occupied before February was a Russian invasion welcomed. To take and hold territory, therefore, they have chosen the path of ethnic cleansing. Attack a settlement, terrorise the population until most flee, then seize, loot, and use filtration camps to remove undesirables. Recruit a few local collaborators. Send in administrators to consolidate control and connect it infrastructurally to the patron state. Thus parts of Bosnia were remade as Serbia or as Croatia. Proxy states like Republika Srpska and Herzeg Bosnia were Bosnia erasure projects. Similar in kind today, Russia’s ersatz People’s Republics are projects designed to wipe Ukrainian territory off the map.


The second word is lesser known: urbicide, a portmanteau of urban and genocide. An architectural collective in Mostar adopted the term to highlight how violence in Bosnia was not only against ethnic others but against the material fabric of cities. The destruction of Mostar’s famous 16th-century stone bridge, the Stari Most, symbolised this war against the city.

Today in southeastern Ukraine we have dead cities – Mariupol and now Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk – emptied of people and gutted by fierce fighting. While this is an outcome of military tactics and battle it also expresses a broader mentality. Their places must be destroyed for ours to live. In occupied southern Ukraine, for example, Russian engineers have restored the Northern Crimean Canal, blocked by Ukraine after Crimea’s annexation. Fresh water supplies are flowing once more to the drought-stricken peninsula.

The third word is also not widely known: refuchess, chess with refugees. In besieged Sarajevo in 1994 an art collective produced a poster of a chessboard with person icons on its rows. The Bosnian war, as the Belgian anthropologist Stef Jansen explains, was depicted as a game of moving people around territory, cleaning theirs here and moving ours there to consolidate a new demographic order.

I encountered this myself in Zvornik, a city in northeast Bosnia that had a slight Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) majority before the war but was one of the first to be ethnic cleansed by paramilitaries from Serbia. After the Dayton Peace Accords many of Sarajevo’s Serbs were directed to go to Zvornik to make sure it remained majority Serb in the face of possible Bosniak returns (as envisioned in the accords). Deporting troublesome Ukrainians and turning others into Russians through passport allocation is the local refuchess game on the ground in occupied Ukraine today. But the real game is now international, a weaponisation of refugee flows to destabilise and divide states across the European Union.

Finally, the fourth word is all too well known: genocide. The horrific systematic murder of more than eight thousand Bosniak men and boys in the surroundings of Srebrenica in July 1995 was deemed an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (remarkably, the only incident legally classified as such in the entire war). That some of the perpetrators in Bosnia’s war faced justice and were sentenced for their crimes is a signal achievement for international law and global justice.

But genocide is an extremely toxic question as the term itself is part of the language of most wars today. This is certainly the case with the war in Ukraine. Preventing genocide against the people of the Donbas was Putin’s warrant for the invasion of Ukraine, just as Serb nationalists claimed their actions were but a response to supposed genocidal campaigns against Serbs in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. In making his case, Putin even evoked Srebrenica and “ethnic cleansing” to vilify Ukraine.

Claims of genocide, like claims of fighting fascism, provide the ultimate moral justification for inflicting violence against incorrigible others. Such righteous violence can be fascist and genocidal itself. The best approach, amidst the fierce information war over these labels, is a patient documentary one. Record the rhetoric used, document the crimes alleged and actually committed, assemble the evidence and trust that there will be a future point of accountability and reckoning, just as there was in the Bosnian war.

All wars, of course, share commonalities while each is distinctive in its own way. Ukraine’s population is ten times the size of Bosnia. Its war features great power competition whereas Bosnia’s did not. Russia’s leader has been in power for decades and has nuclear weapons at his disposal. The war in Bosnia raged for years. Hopefully the war in Ukraine will not.

Dr Gerard Toal, a political geographer at Virginia Tech, is author of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus and co-author of Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal