Is Crimea’s Ethnic Conflict Banal?

By Will H. Moore

Fourteen years ago John Mueller published a provocative, and in my view, valuable article titled “The Banality of ‘Ethnic War’” (ungated pre-publication PDF here). In brief, Mueller’s thesis is that the conventional wisdom about “ethnic conflict” (especially as held by pundits and reporters) is all wet, and the truth is rather banal: small bands of violent specialists (i.e., ordinary criminals) are “let loose” on society by opportunistic politicians while police and military largely stand by, aloof or directing the “hoodlums” from afar. Mueller writes:

“[E]thnic war” is substantially a condition in which a mass of essentially mild, ordinary people can unwillingly and in considerable bewilderment come under the vicious and arbitrary control of small groups of armed thugs… the [1990s] violent conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. These were spawned not so much by the convulsive surging of ancient hatreds or by frenzies whipped up by demagogic politicians and the media as by the ministrations of small—sometimes very small—bands of opportunistic marauders recruited by political leaders and operating under their general guidance. Many of these participants were drawn from street gangs or from bands of soccer hooligans. Others were criminals specifically released from prison for the purpose.

A group of well-armed thugs and bullies encouraged by, and working under rough constraints set out by, official security services would arrive or band together in a community. Sometimes operating with local authorities, they would then take control and persecute members of other ethnic groups, who would usually flee to areas protected by their own ethnic ruffians, sometimes to join them in seeking revenge. Carnivals of often-drunken looting, destruction, and violence would take place, and others—guiltily or not so guiltily—might join in. Gradually, however, many of the people under the thugs’ arbitrary and chaotic “protection,” especially the more moderate ones and young men unwilling to be pressed into military service, would emigrate to safer places. In all this, nationalism was not so much the impelling force as simply the characteristic around which the marauders happened to have arrayed themselves.

The mechanism of violence in the former Yugoslavia[1] and Rwanda, then, is remarkably banal. Rather than reflecting deep, historic passions and hatreds, the violence seems to have been the result of a situation in which common, opportunistic, sadistic, and often distinctly nonideological marauders were recruited and permitted free rein by political authorities.

Because these people are found in all societies, the events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are not peculiar to those locales, but could happen almost anywhere under the appropriate conditions. (pp. 42-3).

That is why the BBC’s article, “Ukraine crisis: Order breaks down ahead of Crimea vote,” captured my attention. Mark Lowen (@marklowen) writes:

They sprung up quickly and quietly across this rugged peninsula: impromptu roadblocks, well-manned and at times aggressive … The checkpoint was under mixed command – Ukrainian police who had defected from Kiev to Crimea’s pro-Russian autonomous government, heavily-armed soldiers wielding AK-47 rifles and a group of Cossacks – one of whom was ready to talk. “I’ve come from Russia,” he said. “We have the right to be here because the local people asked for our help, to protect them from the fascists of western Ukraine.” Beside him stands a man with the Serbian national emblem on his uniform: four Cyrillic “s” letters – the Serbian abbreviation for “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”. Having been based in Belgrade, I strike up conversation in Serbian. “Yes, I’m from southern Serbia,” he tells me. “I’ve come to help my Russian Orthodox brothers – we are the same and it’s normal that I’m here.” He denies being a paramilitary – but it’s clear he’s a Chetnik, the nationalist Serbs who fought in the Yugoslav wars and now sporadically appear elsewhere as mercenaries.

Lowen continues:

Those controlling the checkpoints argue they are needed to protect the local community – but many believe they are a serious threat to security and need to be reined in. They seem to epitomise the breakdown of law and order that is now gripping Crimea – one such group preventing a delegation from the OSCE security organisation from entering the peninsula, firing warning shots to make their point. It’s a situation that Roman Borodin and his wife Tanya want to leave behind. I visit their apartment in Sevastopol, now full of boxes. They’re preparing to move from Crimea to Kiev, worried for the future of their four-year-old daughter, Masha. They are ethnic Russians – but are a far cry from those here pushing Crimea into the arms of Moscow. “We’re leaving because the situation is so unpredictable”, Mr Borodin says … In reality Ukraine has already lost Crimea, now under the control of a rebel government, Russian troops, militias and mercenaries.

It is a news report that Mueller might have ordered from a script mill and central casting. Yet, few if any news reporters or pundits are aware of the mundane mobilization processes that produce these events, and my sense is that the number of scholars who study these conflict processes have embraced Mueller’s argument is not terribly large. Due to this you will find few reports like Lowen’s, and even fewer discussions of the import of monitoring prisons, criminal gangs, and other groups of young males who are experienced in street-level coercion.

Is anything to be done? Mueller believes there is considerable opportunity to stop the killing, preferably before it begins, but importantly, the opportunity does not especially diminish once killing is well underway.

[T]here was nothing particularly inevitable about the violence: with different people in charge and with different policing and accommodation procedures, the savagery could have been avoided.

Because the violence in Yugoslavia and Rwanda was carried out chiefly by small, ill-disciplined, and essentially cowardly bands of thugs and bullies, policing the situation would probably have been fairly easy for almost any organized,disciplined, and sizable army. An extreme aversion to casualties and a misguided assumption that the conflicts stemmed from immutable ethnic hatreds, however, made international military intervention essentially impossible until the violence appeared to have run its course (pp. 43-4).

To be sure, Russia’s apparent troop presence in Crimea,[2] and definite presence right next door, puts a different light on the situation there than the ones that Mueller discusses in his article. But regardless of other states’ beliefs about Putin’s willingness to order the Russian military to engage in battle with an international force of police and peacekeepers put in Crimea, Mueller’s argument is one that is not easily dismissed, and one that I believe all of us do well to consider carefully when events such as we have seen recently unfold in Ukraine take place.


A version of this post first appeared at the author’s blog.

[1] If you are up to watching a gut-wrenching, heart-rending, slow-motion train wreck that substantiates Mueller’s thesis about the banality of ethnic conflict as only a documentary case study can, set aside some time and watch We are all Neighbours (1993; low quality version here). Mueller’s description of bewildered ordinary people being unwillingly swept up in the violence of small bands of marauders will haunt you.

[2] I say “apparent” only because I have not seen media reports which establish the the Russian troops in Crimea are not irregulars, paramilitaries, etc. wearing surplus Russian uniforms and gear. That said, it is very plausible that credible reports exist and I have simply paid inadequate attention.

  1. That European ethnic conflicts are intentionally fueled by the larger imperial powers is as old as European history. Since the days of Rome, divide and conquer has been to most practical way to prevent the various barbarians from uniting against their hegemons.

    Both the US and Russia have been interfering in the various former Soviet sattelite states non-stop since the end of the cold war. Before them it was the Germans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Turks, and so on back in time. So the hypocritical public statements by the Russians and US leadership are really just a distraction.

    The best way to end this pattern of behavior is to deliberately disempower large states, by (1) breaking them up into smaller ones, and (2) by establishing a world power, such as the international criminal court, which can actually try to impose a system of Universal Law, as opposed to the system of Piss-On-The-Law, otherwise known as the Bush Doctrine, or the Putin Doctrine, depending on which side of the fence you are on.

    Until then, in the words of a Bob Marley song . . . there will be War.

    1. I’m honestly going to ask you to present a single instance of the U.S. practicing any form of divide and conquer on any former Soviet states.

      1. Divide and conquer was more typical of past imperial powers (Rome, eastern Rome, Turks, Austro-Hungary, Austria, the Ottomans, not sure about the French, definitely the Russians, Germans, then Russians again). I think the standard playbook for the US isn’t to conquer.

        Though we did try this in Afghanistan and Iraq, including fueling the Sunni-Shiite situations, but we realized this just makes everyone hate us.

        Anyway, the standard US play is one of 2 things:

        (1) put a government in place who is strong enough to last for, lets say, 20-30 years, so that negotiations between us and them have some kind of semi-permanence. In order to last that long, governments tend to be autocratic (allies such as Saddam)

        (2) deliberately de-stabilize existing governments, which are exactly the same as #1 above except they’ve sided with our rivals (i.e., Russia), or insist on independence and pose the threat of potentially siding with our rivals.

        (3) encourage seperatist movements against our bigger rivals, like Russia and China.

        Looking specifically at Eastern Europe, It is in the context of #2 that we encouraged the balkanization of Yugoslavia. Czech republic and Slovakia split, though I’m ashamed to say I don’t know the details of their history. I suspect the US and Russia were both involved, since we’re always involved.

        In the context of #3 in Eastern Europe, you have successful seperatists in Latvia/Lithuania/Estonia, which broke off from the USSR back in the day. The US actively encouraged independence movements in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), both of which excalated to the point of Soviet tanks rolling in, at which point the US abandoned the would-be freedom fighters to be crushed by the Soviets. This guaranteed a generation of bad blood in both these countries vs the Russians.

        Similarly in Ukraine in 2004 (Orange Revolution, temporarily successful), in Georgia (we encouraged them at first then abandoned them and let the Russians crush resistance, again fueling hatreds). Some speculation about in Chechnya and Afghanistan, though that’s not Eastern Europe, and anyway there are plenty of better examples in the “near east / central asia”.

        Does that work for you?

        1. Not really, no.

          To start, this assumes that the U.S. would gain anything from the civil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s see. Literally trillions spent, thousands of American soldiers dead, Iraq’s closer to Iran than America, Afghanistan is still a disaster and America and Pakistan are just pretending we don’t despise each other. That certainly sounds like a strategy of divide and conquer, doesn’t it?

          After that you’re ignoring that for most of Saddam’s time in power, Iraq was close to the Soviet Union, not America. The only time we had anything resembling good relations with him was the 1980s, and that didn’t even survive into the 1990s.

          Then you just brush aside the fact that Yugoslavia was not some stable nation but rather a cobbled-together state. America had nothing to do with it falling to pieces, its ethnic populations did that all on its own the moment Tito died. You then even admit you have no evidence whatsoever of this, you just say that it must be so because it is your opinion that it must be so.

          Following that you just declare that America was responsible for anti-Soviet demonstrations in 1956 and 1968, not even attempting to explain exactly how America could have started anything in Warsaw Pact nations, some of the most closed on Earth. Is this like accusations from Venezuela, where any time anything goes wrong with the Venezuelan economy America must be responsible?

          And there is a gigantic difference between trying to push a dictatorial figure to not shoot his own people and divide and conquer, not to mention you’re ignoring that in Georgia separatists in autonomous regions had been firing rockets in Georgia while Russian ‘peacekeepers’ stood by and watched until Georgia decided to invade those regions, where Russia then decided to counterattack into Georgia itself. Yes, that really sounds like divide and conquer, doesn’t it?

          Lastly there is nothing, I repeat, nothing that I know of to suggest that America has ever had any support for Chechen separatists, and I don’t even know what you’re trying to imply about Afghanistan.

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