By: Gašper Blažič
As I explore historical backgrounds under the impression of new and new atrocities in Ukraine – including the killing of civilians, which reminds us of the recurrence of the Srebrenica tragedy – I cannot ignore the fact that in recent history many cunning attacks have taken place when the public’s attention turned elsewhere. Even in the case of Putin’s military operations in the past, the Kremlin has almost always caught Western allies unprepared. For example, in 2008 with the invasion of Georgia (where part of its territory is de facto already part of Russia) and then in 2014 with the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The following example shows us how completely asymmetric military conflicts (read: unilateral aggressor attacks) can occur at the same time: on August 2nd, 1990, the Iraqi army invaded the relatively small neighbouring country of Kuwait on the orders of then-dictator Saddam Hussein. The invasion took place under the pretext that Kuwait was pumping oil on Iraqi territory. However, the then Iraqi regime also did so under the impression that the West would not interfere in the operation, as previous reactions from Washington to Baghdad’s plans were very faint. It was only when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait that the world public became a little more attentive. Iraqi troops occupied important strategic points in Kuwait, including the Emir’s Palace. Soldiers destroyed the country’s medical and other supplies and took over the media, and the Iraqi army hijacked many Western tourists. These scenes reminded many of similar Soviet incursions into Europe, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, the West was still under the influence of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, and the Euro-Atlantic Alliance’s moral resistance to the Khomeini regime in Iran was still strong. But this time, economic interests (oil!) were also at stake, and a feverish diplomatic activity began, filling the front pages of newspapers around the world throughout August and beyond.
In the shadow of the Gulf War
And what was happening at that time in the disintegrating Yugoslavia? When the situation in Kosovo has barely calmed down, the Belgrade “healthy forces” after May 15th, 1990, when the Serbian representative Dr Borisav Jović took over the presidency in the SFRY, began to raise their heads. In Slovenia, after the election of the Demos government on July 2nd, the newly elected multi-party assembly adopted a declaration of independence, which was supposed to break the legal ties with the federation but did not bring any visible effect in real life. During the summer, the project of establishing the Manoeuvring Structure of National Defence, the first Slovenian armed formation dedicated to the military protection of the Republic of Slovenia, took place far away from the public eye (after the change of legislation, it was formally included in the existing structures of the otherwise disarmed Territorial Defence of the Republic of Slovenia in early October). However, the KOS YPA made very good use of the fact that international politics was dealing with Iraq: a new crisis erupted in mid-August, this time in the Knin area. There was a great uprising of Knin Serbs, who drew their compatriots from all over Northern Dalmatia and Lika and organised a referendum, but the latter was not recognised by official Zagreb. In fact, the YPA, which should have been a neutral factor in these matters, has always worked in favour of the Knin rebels. Namely, when Tudjman’s government sent a contingent of police officers from the Lučko military base to Knin to restore order in Knin, the Yugoslav Air Force intervened in the operation, and they almost shot down the helicopters with police officers. As is well known, later actions ended more tragically: a bloody Easter in Plitvice in 1991 and the massacre of police officers near Borovo selo. Even before Slovenia’s independence, the Yugoslav army began open aggression in the area of two places that were a “disturbance” along the Knin-Sinj road – Kijevo and Vrlika. The operation was led by then-Knin Corps Colonel Ratko Mladić, later known as the chief of the Bosnian Serb army.
“Americans are busy with Iraq, let’s attack Lithuania!”
But let’s go back to the Desert Storm project or Gulf Wars. After nearly six months of unsuccessful efforts to withdraw the Iraqi army from Kuwait, the United States embarked on a military intervention that began in mid-January 1991 and lasted nearly a month and a half. Which again diverted the attention of the world public from what was happening in Yugoslavia and in the west of the then Soviet Union. The three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) have already declared independence, followed by an economic blockade by Moscow. Sounds familiar? Namely, in 1989 a similar economic blockade occurred in the former Yugoslavia – after the attempt to organise a truth rally in Ljubljana failed, the Serbs even imposed customs duties on Slovenian goods (!).
In January 1991, in the shadow of the Persian Gulf, the Soviet army stormed a Lithuanian television building in Vilnius, killing 14 people and carrying out a coup d’état in Lithuania. And it represented an ugly stain on the career of the last Soviet leader and reformist, Mikhail Gorbachev. Therefore, it was never known what kind of relationship Gorbachev had with Soviet generals, most notably Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov. That is why the official (then still Soviet) Kremlin did not leave Lithuania alone for a long time. On the night from June 3rd to 4th, 1991, three weeks before Slovenia’s independence, the Soviet army occupied the airport, railway station and surrounded the parliament in Vilnius, which was supposed to be only part of the military exercises. The army soon withdrew, but the Soviet Union proved its strength and vulnerability in Lithuania and achieved a deterrent effect. In this way, Moscow was able to manipulate the West well so that no international recognition of the separatist Soviet and/or Yugoslav republics would come to mind. However, the President of the Russian Federation (within the still-existing Soviet Union) Boris Yeltsin thought differently at the time – in mid-May 1991, shortly before the Pekre incident, he received a Slovenian government delegation and gave it a guarantee that Russia would not hinder Slovenia’s independence, even though Russians were traditional allies of Serbia.
When the coup attempt in Moscow took place in August 1991, more than six months after the tragic events in Lithuania, the whole world believed that it was a conspiracy of the old anti-reform forces against Gorbachev. But as former world chess champion Gary Kasparov wrote in his book “Winter is Coming” (2015), it was entirely possible that the event was triggered perhaps also with the knowledge of “Miša” or perhaps even on his orders. As Vytautas Landsbergis, the former leader of the Lithuanian Sajudis movement, which sought Lithuania’s independence, said in an interview with MMC RTVS in December 2011, Lithuania was driving along the narrow path of the double western approach: “On the one hand, we were told that Lithuania is free and that it can continue its statehood, but that it is up to us to get the actual consent of the Soviet Union: “Be patient, do not anger Mr. Gorbachev”. Double standards and examples of hypocrisy were visible.” On December 6th, 1991, after a failed coup, the Soviet Union recognised Lithuania’s independence. And a few months later – fell apart.
The YPA allies from Moscow were not reliable
And while we have already mentioned Marshal Yazov, let us also mention his Yugoslav collaborator Veljko Kadijević – who was, among other things, a good friend of the dictator Saddam Hussein. It is known that Yazov and Kadijević were in alliance all the time and that in the shadow of the events in Iraq in the first half of 1991, Kadijević secretly visited Moscow on March 13th, expecting a large-scale joint operation by Soviet and SFRY socialist forces. However, Yazov had too many internal problems. However, Kadijević also prepared for a possible trip to Moscow with a special plane, which he also used for the trip to Baghdad, after the YPA aggression against Slovenia began. According to some sources, he intended to fly there with Jović and get assurances from his comrades from Moscow that they would protect their backs when they attacked Slovenia from the air (this was probably planned for June 30th, 1991, when the ultimatum for the Slovene surrender expired at nine o’clock). Jović and Kadijević were already ready for the flight, but the control of the Batajnica military airport did not allow the flight because Hungary rejected the possibility of the plane flying over its territory on its way to Moscow. But this was certainly not the main reason why the YPA gave up the attack just before the planes took off. It is very likely that the reason for the cancellation was that NATO wanted to intervene due to the announced action, as the latter had reliable information that the Soviet Union would not intervene in the conflict. This also means that Kadijević did not have reliable allies on the Moscow side.
Unfortunately, Ukraine is not so lucky and obviously a lot of blood will be shed until the final breakdown of Russian aggression. So, is Chamberlain syndrome still prevalent in the Western mentality?
Gašper Blažič is a journalist for Demokracija, editor of its daily board, and editor of the Blagovest.si portal.