Serbia had played a key role in forming SAO Krajina, so question is, why it did little to nothing to help Serbs in Krajina in 1995, when Operation Storm was wiping out the pseudo-state?
The reason lay several years in the past.
In the year 1989., a part of Serbs in Croatia had joined the Slobodan Milošević’s “antibureocratic revolution” which had changed the structure of the Yugoslav Federation. Attempt was made to utilize the same pattern in 1989. in Knin, which failed. But this did cause acceleration of ethnic enstrangement in Croatia, and in 1990. Croatian Serbs rebeled with support of the Serbian government and the Yugoslav Army. This led to declaration of SAO Krajina in December 1990., whose goal was eventual annexation by Serbia of the Serb-majority territories in Croatia and Bosnia.
According to the peace proposal of US diplomat Cyrus Vance from November 1991., JNA (Yugoslav National Army) was supposed to retreat from Croatia, while the front line was to be taken over by the UN peace forces (UNPROFOR). This was only realized in 1992., when JNA had become the Army of Yugoslavia (JA), while its elements in BiH had been renamed as the Army of Republika Srpska. Rebel Serbs and elements of JNA were against the presence of UNPROFOR, but Serbia and JNA convinced them that presence of UNPROFOR was in their interest. In early February 1992., political leadership of rebel Serbs accepted Vance’s plan. JNA guaranteed “all protection to the Serb people and Serbian borderlands (borderland – krajina) should the peace plan be tricked”.
Three Serb Armies
In mid-February 1992., General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of Yugoslavia ordered JNA to pull out of Croatia and transfer to protected garrisons in BiH and Serbia. This was the beginning of JNA’s withdrawal which ended with creation of three Serb armies. When choosing new garrisons, care was taken of the possibility of quickly using JNA in “protecting the Serb people from Ustashi genocide and integrity of the protected UN areas should they be threatened”. At the border of Croatia and BiH there were nine forward detachments: Bosanska Gradiška, Bosanska Dubica, Martin Brod, Bosansko Grahovo, Lička Kaldrma, Bosanska Kostajnica, Bosanski Novi, Bosanska Krupa and village of Željava near Bihać. Several forward detachments were at the border of Croatia and Serbia (Vojvodina). JNA was also offering Serbian governments of occupied territories direct assistance with forming the Territorial defense and militia.
During withdrawal preparations in March 1992. the Serb army created Kopaonik, first of the three plans of defending the Serb-occupied territories in Croatia. It called for intervention of JNA forces from Bosnia and Serbia. Next war plan, the war plan Drina, was made in November 1993., and assumed the combined efforts by the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), Army of the Serb Republic (VRS) and Serbian Army of Krajina (SVK). The goal of this plan was the defense of territorial integrity of Serbia and Serbian “states” to the west of Drina and Danube, conquest of territories with majority Serb populace, creation of conditions for foundation of a unified Serb state, and prevention of creation of compact Croatian and Muslim states in the territories of the former Yugoslavia (with Serb leaders also being afraid of phantom “Greater Croatia”). The plan required forward units of VJ to quickly reach the former frontline in eastern Croatia and thus reinforce rebel Serb (Chetnik) defenses, while the portion of forces would help them reach the Josipovac – Mikanovci – Slavonski Šamac line. Similar role for the Yugoslav Army was also assumed in the war plan Gvozd from February 1995. In this plan, rebel Serb forces would break the Croatian attack, then counterattack, taking Spačvan forest in eastern Croatia, while VRS was to help SVK in reaching sea in the Šibenik – Biograd area.
Croatia always assumed that Serbia and Serbs from BiH might intervene in the war in Croatia, and took appropriate precautions. In May 1995. during the Operation Flash, the possibility of intervention by the Yugoslav Army was assumed, and so measures were taken to prevent it. Forces of the Corps Area Osijek carried out the defensive operation Wall (“Zid”), whose purpose was to prevent any offensive by the Serb forces. Yet despite the promises, Yugoslav Army did not intervene and merely maintained a defensive posture.
During the Operation Storm, Croatian forces undertook the same defensive preparations as they did during the Operation Flash. Corps area Osijek carried out the defensive operation Feniks (Phoenix) to prevent the penetration of Serb forces on directions of Šid – Županja and Ernestinovo – Čepin, as well as to create the conditions for the counteroffensive along the directions of Borinačka kosa – Bobotski kanal – Trpinja. Nearly all forces of the ZP Osijek – two Guards brigades, five reserve brigades and seven Home Guard regiments – were deployed in the two defensive lines. This force was reinforced by one brigade from ZP Bjelovar as well as elements of three brigades and one battalion from the General Headquarters, as well as a part of the squadron of antitank helicopters. Mobilized units were deployed to defensive positions on 2nd and 3rd of August, and police units on 5th of August of 1995. Serbian intelligence estimated these forces to number 35 000 men, ready to momentarily attack the occupied part of Slavonia.
Forces of the Southern Area had likewise spent the Operation Storm in the preventive readiness towards the Hercegovina Corps of VRJ and forces of VJ in Montenegro. According to the Maestral plan, Croatian Army deployed three reserve brigades, two Home Guard regiments, one Home Guard battalion, three mixed naval infantry detachments, one artillery battalion, one engineering battalion and one mobile shore artillery battery. Following the first phase of the Operation Storm, one reserve brigade of the Croatian Army was pulled out of the Sinj frontline and sent to the southern front on 8th of August. Croatian Navy was also in an increased state of readiness.
Immediately before the Operation Storm, the 11th Corps of SVK in the occupied areas of eastern Croatia had been mobilized to its full strength of 20 000 men. Of heavy weapons, it had 124 tanks and 195 artillery pieces. Despite significant strength, command of the Yugoslav Army held that the personnel morale is very weak and that the Croatian Army forces in eastern Slavonia would have broken the corps within two days. Yugoslav Army, with 13 artillery batteries, took fire positions to defend the bridges across the Danube, Sava and Drina. Forces of the 1st Army in the strength of five Army brigades and two support brigades were set to defend Danube, Bačka and Srijem. In the area of Samobor there were two brigades of the Special Forces Corps. 1st Army command had organized a forward command post on Fruška Gora. In the 2nd Army zone in Montenegro two battle groups were organized. One was assigned to the Navy Command, while the second was set to secure the border on Cetinje – Nikšić line. Part of the forces was in garrisons to secure the border towards the Muslim enclave in Goražde. Navy had at Prevlaka some 1600 men, six ships, 10 tanks, and the Air Force was prepared to support the 1st Army and the Navy. General Headquarters had three brigades in reserve. In general, Yugoslav Army on western borders had 12 000 men, 172 tanks, 95 armored transports, etc. Four brigades with 6700 men could be engaged within a day or two.
Conflict of Karadžić and Mladić
Despite its promises, VRS also did not help the Serbs in Krajina. Precisely at the time of Operation Storm, VRS was in the crisis due to a conflict between President of RS Radovan Karadžić and the commander of VRS, general Ratko Mladić. Only the Air Force of VRS attacked the area of Mačković in Novi Grad municipality, causing human and material casualties. On the southern front the Herzegovina Corps of VRS occasionally bombarded the area of Dubrovnik with artillery, but without any serious offensive. In general, 5 people had died and 38 were wounded by Serb attacks during the operation of providing security for the Operation Storm.
Several years of isolation left the Yugoslav Army as little more than a shadow of the Yugoslav National Army of 1991. It had massive financial and personnel problems, insufficient war reserves of weapons, equipment and fuel, sufficient for at most five to six days of war. In short, it was not at all ready for another war, let alone one outside the borders of Yugoslavia. This issue was in part self-inflicted, as JNA (Yugoslav National Army, its predecessor) had left massive stocks of weapons and equipment to rebel Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia.
At the meeting of the Supreme Defense Council of Yugoslavia on 14th of August 1995., colonel Branko Krga, chief of the Intelligence administration of the General Headquarters of the Yugoslav Army, blamed the quick collapse of the rebel Serb forces on the political leadership which was focused on power plays and personal enrichment, so that “there was not enough attention given to preparing the country and the people for defense”. He even proposed that “psihotronic weapons had been used against the Serbs, which influenced the soldiers not to offer resistance” and added that this “of course, is not the result of Croatian ingenuity, but of American and German experts”. Krga essentially underestimated Croatia and overestimated foreign assistance due to ingrained belief in Yugoslav political and military circles that Croats are inferior scum. This same psychological pattern is also responsible for belief that MPRI assisted Croatia. In reality, MPRI’s engagement was minor and had no appreciable influence on Croatian military organization or operations. But Serbs saw USA and Germany everywhere.
“Ran Away Like Rabbits”
Milošević had a similar opinion, blaming the Croatian Serbs for not fighting and retreating already on the first day of combat. “If we had done the idiotic attempt to help them that same day, who would have reached Knin by evening? We couldn’t have gotten there due to their columns which had blocked all the roads in running away together with their populace. More of them had died running away with civilians than would have died holding the lines. It is an absurd situation!”. Milošević also asked who made the decision for the “leadership of Krajina to leave Krajina? Such a decision, in conditions when they had all conditions to defend themselves, was made to cause an exodus. And now there should be a reason for Yugoslavia to rush there to defend these territories that they had abandoned like rabbits?”.
Of course, the decision of the rebel Serb leadership to retreat from Knin was a Heaven-given alibi for Yugoslavia to not intervene. While complaints against Croatian Serbs were not unjustified, main factor was the fact that Yugoslav leadership – contrary to leaders of Krajina – was well aware of the capabilities of the Croatian Army and the situation in the southwestern Bosnia. The operational cycle of Croatian forces which had began on Kupres in November 1994. and ended in late July 1995. with destruction of the 2nd Corps of VRS and entrance of Croatian Army (HV) into Glamoč and Bosansko Grahovo was not a warning that could be ignored. Croatian Army had taken over the initiative from VRS, demonstrating the power which JNA (Yugoslav National Army) was not capable of demonstrating even in 1991. in the far more favorable balance of power. A conflict with battle-hardened, motivated and experienced Croatian Army was the last thing Milošević and his demoralized Yugoslav Army needed.
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