Croatia’s Retaking of Serbska Krajina During Yugoslav War: An Example for Liberating Ukrainian Donbas?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 165

(Source: AFP/Getty Images)

As Ukrainian forces use the recently signed ceasefire to pause, regroup and rearm after suffering heavy losses in the past several months, officials in Kyiv are a long way from accepting the current status quo in the east as yet another frozen conflict (see EDM, September 17). With the Ukrainian military industry now swinging into full throttle and producing more armored equipment and replenishing hardware, Ukraine’s government refuses to lose the eastern region of Donbas forever. From Kyiv’s perspective, despite a series of setbacks, Ukraine’s fledgling army proved it could handle itself against the Russia-backed rebels. Indeed, government forces were actively turning the tide in eastern Ukraine before Moscow inserted Russian armor and infantry units to stop the rout of the separatist militants.

At the same time, however, the country will be holding nation-wide parliamentary elections on October 28. And President Petro Poroshenko’s government is facing public pressure to demonstrate that the lull in the fighting does not necessarily mean that it is accepting the status quo in eastern Ukraine. Increasingly, the lessons of the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s are starting to occupy the thinking of senior officials in Kyiv, particularly in how Ukraine can use the recent series of setbacks in the east as a starting point to win back lost territory. Illustratively, Yuriy Lutsenko, a key advisor to President Poroshenko, wrote on his Facebook page: “An example [for Ukraine] can be Croatia. After the capture of Vukovar by the Yugoslav army, where thousands of [Croatian] defenders of independence died heroically, Croats were forced to accept the existence of Serbska (Serbian) Krajina. For three years, they not only tolerated the temporary losses of territory, but developed the economy and the army. And then in a couple of hours, a tank attack [wiped] the [Serb] separatists from the surface of the earth” (Facebook, September 9;, September 7).

The Croatian army’s August 1995 campaign—known as “Operation Storm”—against the forces of Serbska Krajina appears to be emerging as a future “blitzkrieg” model for the Ukrainian armed forces to possibly use against the separatist Russia-backed militias in Donbas. But just how appropriate is it to compare the situation in Croatia of 1995 with that of Ukraine in 2014?

By the beginning of “Operation Storm” Croatia had been in a state of war for four years. During this time, the country passed a difficult journey from the first defeats it experienced in its battles with the Yugoslav National Army, to the point several years later when it had finally created strong, and well-trained armed forces.

After Croatia’s proclamation of independence in 1991, its Serbian national minority created a semi-independent enclave—the Republic of Serbska Krajina (RSK)—along the country’s eastern borders. This event was the chief cause of the war between the Serbs and Croats. In 1992, a cease-fire agreement was signed, but fighting broke out from time to time in various locations around the Krajina region.

In December 1994, Croatian officials ordered their General Staff to begin planning for a military operation to retake the lost territories. The resulting “Operation Storm’s” key aim was the complete destruction of the Serbska Krajina as a separate entity, which was a direct threat to the existence of an independent Croatia. During the summer of 1995, Croatia ordered a mass mobilization of its military and focused an assault force of 150,000 men at the border of Serbska Krajina. At that time, the number of the Croatian armed forces totaled approximately 300,000 men. Opposing them, the Serbska Krajina army had about 27,000 men and possessed 303 tanks, approximately 300 armored vehicles, and over 360 artillery guns with a caliber of 100 millimeters or more in their inventory (, August 17, 2013).

In the event of mobilization, the armed forces of Serbska Krajina could be increased to 60,000 men. However, this was not done at the time of the “Operation Storm” offensive, despite the fact that there were many signals about Croatia’s preparation to launch such an attack. Thus, on the eve of the operation, the Croatian Army had an overwhelming superiority over the forces of Serbska Krajina of 5 to 1. Moreover, joining the Croats in the attack was the 5th Corps of the Muslim Bosniaks, under the command of General Atif Dudakovich, which consisted of about 27,000 men. Before carrying out “Operation Storm,” the Croatian government launched an information campaign directed against the RSK. Croatian television, radio and newspapers promoted the increased strength of the Croatian Army and spoke about the weaknesses of the RSK military, the collapse of its statehood, and the imminent end to separatism.

Despite the Croatian forces’ numerical superiority and the assistance that they were provided by Western countries, the separatist Serbs should have had a chance to survive. Serbska Krajina enjoyed an agreement with Yugoslavia for military assistance. Yet, the Belgrade government led by Slobodan Milosevic had been demoralized by the deteriorating military situation in Bosnia and had no particular desire to be become involved in a new conflict on Croatian soil. Thus, the RSK forces were left on their own.

The entire operation took only six days (August 4–9), with the active phase lasting only 3–4 days. The RSK army was unable to withstand the impact of an attack by multiple superior forces. Persistent fighting followed for the Serbska Krajina Republic’s capital—the city of Knin—which was consequently seriously damaged during the fighting. The territory of the RSK was literally cut apart by the powerful penetrating attacks of the Croatian army corps. Broken Serbian units retreated in a hurry to the Yugoslav border as tens of thousands of residents from the unrecognized republic fled with the army during the retreat. As a result of “Operation Storm,” Croatian forces suffered losses of 200 killed and over 1,000 wounded. The separatist Serb forces lost more than 750 people dead and over 2,500 injured (, March 14, 2006).

But considering the unique historical characteristics of “Operation Storm,” is it logical for Ukrainian policymakers to be thinking about the Ukrainian army repeating the 1995 success of the Croatian Armed Forces by conducting a similar attack on Donbas? On paper at least, the number of units of pro-Russia rebels in Donbas is approximately equal to the size of the army of Serbska Krajina—27,000–29,000 men. While the number of tanks and armored vehicles that the Krajina rebels had in 1995 is actually higher than what the rebels in eastern Ukraine have at their disposal at the present time (, June 25).

However, that advantage is rapidly diminishing as the Moscow-backed separatists in Donbas are now receiving a constant flow of military aid from Russia, including arms, military equipment, ammunition, medicine and food. Without this assistance, the pro-Russia rebels could not have remained in their current positions even for a few days due to the blockade by Ukrainian forces from the west. In addition, the rebels in Donbas are supported by Russian advisors with military experience fighting in Chechnya and Georgia. Moreover, the situation is further complicated by Moscow’s creation of numerous training camps for Russian fighters on the territory of Russia. These camps are set up in close proximity to the eastern border of Ukraine (, July 23).

Finally, after experiencing a series of defeats from late August to early September, the Ukrainian army has lost whatever offensive potential it had in early August and will require some time to be re-equipped. As a result of key errors in planning operations made by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, about two-thirds of its military equipment, including tanks and armored fighting vehicles, have been lost between July and August 2014 (, July 4). These losses have greatly affected Ukraine’s overall combat capability. With the signing of the armistice with the pro-Russia rebels on September 5, the process has begun of restoring Ukraine’s forces that were engaged in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). But according to military experts, this process will be delayed until at least mid-October.

Currently, the total number of Ukrainian forces in the ATO are estimated to be between 50,000 to 55,000 men, while the number of armored vehicles is estimated to be around 600–800 units, with about 50–70 multiple launch rocket systems, 40 combat aircraft, as well as helicopters (, August 11). All of these forces, at the moment, are far superior to the forces of the rebels. However, they are clearly not enough to try to repeat a “Storm”-type operation for five key reasons.

The main problems of the Ukrainian army remain: 1) an absence of competent planning at the General Staff level; 2) low discipline, especially among junior officers and enlisted personnel; 3) poor interaction between conducive parts of the operation, as well as friction between the different branches of the military, for example tension between the army and the national guard; 4) a low level of efficiency in the activities of the military intelligence and counterintelligence; 5) and a certain level of distrust by the ordinary Ukrainian army soldiers for most of their commanders because of the issues listed above.

Taken together, all of these shortcomings represent only the most visible problems plaguing Ukraine’s ATO forces. In summing up the current state of the Ukrainian army, it is necessary to recognize that, at present, the country’s military does not have the capability to crush the pro-Russia rebels—despite the dreams and expectations of some senior officials in Kyiv. This, of course, does not mean that such a possibility may not appear within the next several months or even over the course of the next year, especially as Ukraine’s defense industry begins to produce more weaponry and the military begins receiving arms and assistance from its Western partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

But weapons and even technical assistance from the West will not be enough. The Ukrainian High Command, led by Defense Minister Valeriy Heletiy, will also need to use the ceasefire to begin serious work on reorganizing the Ukrainian army; the army will need to seek and acquire modern weapons from NATO countries; and the General Staff will have to be able to organize the planning of military operations at the appropriate level. In the final analysis, therefore, there are simply too many “if’s” inherent in addressing Ukraine’s military problems, and they will first need to be corrected to achieve real victories on the battlefield. But as Sir Winston Churchill wrote: “Victory in war cannot be guaranteed, it can only be earned.”