Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Echoes of Bosnia: Why The World Won’t Stop Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

Three weeks after Russian forces launched their unprovoked assault on Ukraine, including the wanton destruction of cities and killing of civilians, the United States, NATO, and the United Nations continue to equivocate and project weakness when it comes to standing up to Vladimir Putin. The U.N. is impotent. NATO has said no to a no-fly zone and no to fighter jets for Ukraine. Every action taken so far to support Ukraine seems to be too little, too late, with no real commitment. 

I’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well. In 1992, Serbian ultra-nationalists launched a genocidal campaign against their Muslim neighbors in Bosnia-Herzegovina — an independent republic of the former Yugoslavia. Despite the deployment of a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and the institution of a no-fly zone, the Bosnian Serbs waged a war of murder, rape, torture, and forced displacement of civilian populations that raged for years.

In the summer of 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) encircled the Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde. Overwhelming a Dutch peacekeeping force, the BSA murdered nearly 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica and raped scores of women. When the BSA attacked the capital city of Sarajevo, the U.N. and NATO began a 15-day campaign of limited airstrikes. 

In the U.S., the military began drawing up detailed plans for what seemed like an unavoidable deployment of thousands of U.S. forces. The world had seemingly put the Bosnian Serbs on notice that it would not tolerate genocide. I would soon learn, however, that genocide in the heart of Europe wasn’t the issue driving U.S. and NATO military planning.

Operation Plan 40104

As the genocide in Bosnia was unfolding, I was serving as an intelligence officer with the Second Marine Expeditionary Force. The team of analysts I led had spent the better part of two years preparing senior military commanders for the likelihood that the Marine Corps would spearhead a military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina involving more than 25,000 U.S. forces and an even larger number of allied troops.

Operation Plan 40104 (Operation Determined Effort) became the singular focus of our intelligence preparation work in late 1994. While there were several force options under consideration, the Second Marine Expeditionary Force was focused on our role in conducting and in-extremis rescue of the UNPROFOR, which found itself the target of a superior BSA force. U.N. rules of engagement prevented UNPROFOR “peacekeeping” units from adequately defending themselves when they came under attack and hundreds had even been taken hostage, some tied to flag poles outside BSA facilities likely to be targets of NATO airstrikes.

UNPROFOR had lost credibility when it failed to request NATO air support after April 1994 attack on Gorazde. Bosnian Serbs killed civilians, shelled the hospital, and took peacekeepers hostage. No distinction was made between military and civilian targets. Villages throughout the area were destroyed, burned to the ground, and their inhabitants either driven out or killed.

By the Spring of 1995, the situation was serious enough that I was dispatched to Europe to participate in 40104 coordination meetings at the U.S. European Command Headquarters in Germany, the Joint Analysis Center in Molesworth, England, and Allied Forces Southern Europe in Naples, Italy. The mission I had been given was to collect as much information as possible that would help our Marines at the tactical level should we have to make an opposed landing along the shores of Croatia, or drive convoys of armored vehicles from ships at the ports of Ploce or Split across Bosnia as far as Bihac, Banja Luka, and Sarajevo. 

Map of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia showing key cities and U.N. safe zones. (Library of Congress)
Map of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia showing key cities and U.N. safe zones. (Library of Congress)

The Invasion That Wasn’t to Be

I returned to the U.S. with very little information that could help our planning efforts. High-level U.S. and NATO officials didn’t seem to believe a large military intervention in Bosnia was justified. In fact, many openly communicated their opposition to such an operation. The people of Bosnia had been fighting each other for centuries, they argued. This, of course, was fundamentally wrong, but it was an argument designed to dehumanize the war’s Muslim victims and make plans for NATO military action appear reckless. 

Although I had always believed (naively) that we had been working on a plan to put an end to the bloodshed and stop another genocide on European soil, the reality soon became clear.

The most likely scenario we began focusing on was an air evacuation primarily of British and French forces. The Brits and the French made up the largest contingents of the U.N. peacekeeping force of 38,000. The plan called for us to arrive at UNPROFOR locations under the cover of darkness via helicopter. The local Muslim communities that these forces were protecting from Serb assaults had indicated they would do everything possible to prevent U.N. forces from leaving. They rightfully feared being massacred. 

It was only when the idea of blowing up allied equipment and vehicles in place so it could not fall into the hands of the Serbs did the true U.S. and NATO calculus emerge. The U.S. and NATO had resisted the obvious need to introduce ground forces into Bosnia for years. Absent a peace agreement to guarantee the safety of any forces introduced, the only security issue warranting a U.S.-led NATO operation was the fate of more than 17,000 allied troops on the ground and their equipment. 

Although 28 nations contributed troops to the UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia, there were significant differences in readiness. Some contingents arrived without weapons, fighting vehicles, some without sleeping bags, flak jackets, or cold weather gear. All of this equipment had to be donated by other European nations before these forces could deploy. If Operation Plan 40104 had actually been carried out, all warring parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia would have made a mad dash to capture as much European military equipment as possible.

It was only when the idea of blowing up allied equipment and vehicles in place so it could not fall into the hands of the Serbs did the true U.S. and NATO calculus emerge.

Leaving so much armor and equipment behind was unacceptable to the European forces in question, and many of my colleagues in the U.S. seemed to agree. The real issue at stake in Bosnia was the potential equipment losses that European militaries would likely suffer. 

Lessons For Ukraine

The U.N. mission in the former Yugoslavia was the largest in its history. More than 70 Security Council resolutions were passed and member states contributed more than $3.5 billion to the UNPROFOR mission. The U.S. is estimated to have spent nearly $5 billion, covering operations, humanitarian assistance, and support for the no-fly zone. UNPROFOR suffered more than 1,300 casualties before a peace deal was struck.

The human cost throughout Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was staggering. More than 20,000 rape victims, 50,000 torture victims, and 151 mass graves with some containing up to 3,000 victims in each. The so-called safe zones or U.N. protected areas were largely destroyed — businesses, homes, hospitals, schools, everything.

The U.N. and NATO failed in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the face of genocide. There is no reason to believe they will suddenly rise to the occasion in Ukraine. In fact, Putin’s veiled threats to use nuclear weapons (bluff or not) has so rattled the alliance that the military assistance needed most in Ukraine (airpower, no-fly zones, safe areas) will almost certainly never arrive. 

The ugly truth is that military decisions in the age of nuclear weapons, even in the face of war crimes, are never made solely based on the moral issues at stake. The world failed to muster the moral courage to stop a genocide in Bosnia when it had the overwhelming military might to do so. That’s the world Ukraine is depending on today to save its citizens from Vladimir Putin. And Vlad’s bloody fingers are never far from the nuclear button.