Big Bad NATO: Kremlin Lessons in Whitewashing War Crimes in Ukraine
Justas Kazlauskas is a University of Oxford Area Studies Graduate.
Listen for long enough, and the Kremlin starts to resemble an old-fashioned jukebox machine. Put in a few petrodollars, and out comes a familiar tune. Crowd-pleasers include Krym Nash, Gayropa, and Russia the Great Power. The most worn-out buttons are for trendy earworms like Special Military Operation, Ukraine Was Never a Country, and Everything is Going According to Plan. Yet there is one hit, a classic dating back to the 90s, that Russia’s senior management tends to play when the crowd gets particularly rowdy. Big Bad NATO spins the historical memory of the alliance’s 78-day aerial campaign against Serbia in 1999. For the regime obsessed with historical analogies, the Balkan events offer a rich vein of propaganda motifs.
Reading about the Yugoslavia bombings on the state-funded istorya.rf site, one would be surprised to learn that NATO’s actions were not in response to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars orchestrated by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević. Instead, the reader is to believe that it was an American ploy to take advantage of Russia’s post-Soviet vulnerability, destroy its ‘fraternal’ ally, Serbia, and deliberately humiliate the great power. Distorted though this historical lens may be, it reveals much about the country’s inability to make peace with its new semi-peripheral status in the aftermath of the Cold War. As the inheritors of ‘NATO’s great rival’ status from the USSR, Russian leaders expected something akin to co-chairmanship of European security. Reflecting on the 1990s talks leading up to the Dayton Accords in Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke observed that ‘Moscow’s primary goal was neither to run nor to wreck the negotiations. Rather, what it wanted most was to restore a sense, however symbolic, that [Russia] still mattered in the world.’ Yugoslavia dashed such hopes. Tellingly, upon hearing that NATO bombed Bosnia in March 1999, Yevgeny Primakov, then Russia’s Prime Minister, cancelled his official visit to the US mid-air, ordering his plane to turn around. Notions of frustration, humiliation, and ‘the West taking advantage of Russia’s weakness’ have since become persistent themes in conservative statist and ethno-nationalist discourse. Commenting on the decline of Russia’s ties with the West, Putin would often cite Yugoslavia as NATO’s original sin – the place where it all began.
Tellingly, Putin served as the Secretary of the Security Council during the Kosovo War and is thought to have been one of the officials in favour of sending a contingent of some 200 troops to occupy the Pristina airport, where they came close to exchanging fire with NATO soldiers. Russia’s risky move, tactically useless but rich in symbolism, betrayed just how enthralled Russian leaders were with ideas of Derzhavnost – the country’s ‘destiny as a great power.’
…to the good ol’ days
We might be tempted to deduce that such frustrations over global status set the tone for Russia’s attitude towards Western-led military initiatives for years to come. Nevertheless, a more nuanced perspective should acknowledge that NATO-Russia relations were hardly straightforward. Even though the US no longer considered its relations with Europe’s gas station the central axis of global politics post-Cold War, NATO leadership still attempted to create a role for Russia that would fit its grandiose self-image.
Moscow was granted an ego-soothing ‘special partnership’ with the alliance under the May 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which was later upgraded to symbolic parity through the 2002 NATO-Russia Council. Although these structures proved flawed and were occasionally ignored, the level of US-Russia cooperation post-9/11 also complicates the simplistic narrative of ‘Russia humiliated’. Moscow’s outrage over the NATO air campaign in Bosnia proved transitory, with Russia itself playing an instrumental role in convincing Milošević to accept the presence of an international force. By the time the two countries rediscovered themselves as partners in anti-terrorism cooperation efforts – with Russia accepting the establishment of US military bases in Central Asia and actively providing intelligence during the US invasion of Afghanistan – Russian troops had already been working alongside NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo.
To explain why Yugoslavia has become a recurrent theme in various speeches by Russian leaders and their mouthpieces, one should look at the Kremlin’s solidifying obsession with regime security. Although some have pointed to factors like Soviet-era anxiety, geographic vulnerability, and the inherited Siloviki mentality, characterised by the fixation on maintaining power through force – one does not need to look beyond the immediate security situation of the 2000s to understand the outlook. Already embattled in Chechnya, Putin was lurching from one domestic security crisis to the next, including rush-hour bombs at the Pushkin Square, fires at Moscow’s TV centre, and high-profile hostage crises. Given this formative experience, it is perhaps unsurprising that liberal interventionism was perceived as yet another destabilising factor.
NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia shaped Russia’s interpretations of colour revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, leading to suspicions that Western interventions were exporting regime change. Putin would later link NATO’s air campaign in Bosnia with Western support for the Bulldozer Revolution against Milošević and Kosovo independence. In this way, Yugoslavia has frequently been portrayed as the original colour revolution and a precursor to Euromaidan in Ukraine.
Questioning the rationale behind the West’s forceful promotion of quixotic values, such as liberal democracy and human rights, Russian officials concluded that they must have been a cover for toppling regimes. The successes of colour revolutions were attributed to Western training and financial assistance to opposition groups. Motivated by revolution prevention, Russia’s discourse soon adopted themes of normative exceptionalism. Suspicions of orchestrated regime change in the ‘near abroad’ led the Kremlin to brand Russia as an indigenous style of ‘sovereign democracy’.
Fears of contagion also motivated sustained efforts to undermine the democratisation of former Soviet states, which could inspire or directly support opposition groups within Russia. Moscow would go on to extend financial assistance, export political technologies, organise media campaigns, and even interfere militarily on behalf of embattled authoritarians in Central Asia, Belarus, and Syria.
The suspicion that a grassroots revolution could one day precipitate regime change in Russia has grown more acute following the Arab Spring. Putin assumed his third presidential term in the context of domestic protests over the rigged 2011 Russian legislative elections. From Moscow’s perspective, the domestic outlook was undoubtedly influenced by the concurrent situation in Libya, where NATO air strikes were hastening the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. The gruesome death of Gaddafi himself – a video of which Putin is said to have watched and rewatched – appears to have been particularly influential. Themes of Western duplicity would later be invoked in speeches; Russia’s intervention in Syria would be motivated by the need to avoid the ‘Libya scenario’.
Can’t Stop Believin’
To what extent this rhetoric has been internalised – as opposed to instrumentalised – is open to question. Ideas about intentional regime toppling have certainly permeated Russia’s leadership to a degree, with Putin himself acknowledging the influence nationalist thinkers like Konstantin Leontiev and Ivan Ilyin had on his worldview.  In one book that Putin is said to have read and re-read (What dismemberment of Russia Would Mean for The World), Ilyin accuses Western powers of fostering separatism in Ukraine and warns that labels of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ will be used to deceive the world over the nature of regime change. Although difficult to know to what extent such beliefs have been transliterated into Russia’s foreign policy, Putin has reportedly paid for Ilyin’s grave out of his own pocket and colour revolutions were included as threats in the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy.
Conversely, there is little doubt that denunciations of Western-led interventions played well with nationalists back home. With the revival of Eurasianism and extreme nationalism in Russia – demonstrated by overwhelming popular support for the annexation of Crimea – there was political capital to be gained from projections of power abroad. Russian military-industrial sector also had vested interests in positing NATO as a strategic opponent to secure funding for large acquisition deals and stave off potential restructuring that would entail job losses.
NATO’s track record in Yugoslavia could be used to drum up nationalist support and legitimise Russia’s military adventures, reinforcing the idea that there were ‘good arguments’ on all sides. When Russia annexed Crimea in violation of numerous international laws and agreements  – Kremlin pointed the finger back at the West, borrowing the justificatory language from the intervention in Kosovo. Such superficial resemblance need not convince – just be plausible enough to raise the bar for factual evidence, delaying and limiting the punitive response.  The sham referendum on Crimean status in 2014 also later included references to Kosovo’s independence as part of the legal rationale for secession.
Such narratives proved useful in maintaining domestic control too. Various NGOs and opposition groups could be delegitimised just for receiving part of their income from donors in Western countries. Accusations of interference by ‘foreign agents’ were poorly substantiated even in the most controversial of cases – scholars have shown that American aid in Ukraine was actually decreasing in the run-up to the 2004 revolution and that ‘the West could never have outspent the regime and its backers, many of whom were Russian.’ 
Nevertheless, these ideas found a receptive ear among insecure autocrats such as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev or Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, who welcomed Russian political technologists, accepted deliveries of riot gear, and eagerly used western liberal interventionism as a pretext to crack down on domestic opposition groups. They too would later receive congratulatory phone calls for rigging elections from Putin himself. 
Echoes of Kosovo
With more than 18 months into Russia’s gruesome invasion of Ukraine, the pragmatism inherent in Russia’s public denunciations of Western-led military interventions has become even more strikingly clear. Putin’s February 2022 declaration of war against Ukraine parroted NATO justifications for intervening in Yugoslavia, including stopping state-endorsed genocide and dethroning an out-of-control nationalist government. Putin’s earlier statement that recognised the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics also cited Western backing for Kosovo independence in lieu of a credible legal basis.
Some, undoubtedly, find such rhetoric catchy. Putin’s apologists and state-funded media channels continue to showcase footage of the Belgrade bombings to highlight the supposed Western hypocrisy in criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Yet, contrary to Russia’s troops in Ukraine, NATO land forces did not engage in mass executions of civilians, torture and rape of women and children, mutilation of war prisoners, and “double tap” airstrikes on schools and hospitals. Annexation of foreign territories was never the goal of any US-led or NATO intervention either.
Russian war crimes in Ukraine only rhyme with those in Chechnya. Those still humming the tune of NATO hostility are veering into the realm of make-believe, tone-deaf reality.
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