The Mythification of Srebrenica and Russian Rhetoric of Genocide in the War against Ukraine
On July 11th, at the Srebrenica Memorial Center, the remains of 30 more victims of the genocide committed by the Army of the Republic of Srpska in July 1995 were laid to rest. This event did not receive much attention or coverage in the Ukrainian media, despite the significance of Ukrainians understanding this crime. On the one hand, it is essential to study the practical experience of fighting for recognition of such crimes as genocide in international criminal tribunals and bringing the perpetrators to justice. On the other hand, it helps to comprehend how Russia manipulates, distorts facts, and deceives the world, using Srebrenica to justify its genocidal actions in Ukraine.
Russia refuses to acknowledge the genocide of Bosnian Muslim men killed in the UN-protected safe area of Srebrenica in July 1995. However, they have turned these tragic events into a central narrative in their rhetoric of genocide in Ukraine.
In 2019, following the last Normandy Format summit held in Paris on December 9th, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a statement:
“The Ukrainian side constantly raises the question: let us close the border with troops. Well, I can imagine what will come next. There will be a Srebrenica, and that’s it.”
This statement is just one example of how the Kremlin instrumentalizes crimes without facing adequate responsibility—against Ukraine, using the same methods as the genocide in Srebrenica.
The Kremlin has repeatedly mentioned Srebrenica, and such statements have been made throughout the entire period of Russian aggression against Ukraine, starting in 2014 and continuing to this day.
- in the context of the war in Donbas, by claiming the readiness of the “Kyiv regime” to commit a massacre in the “D/LNR”;
- In February 2022, a reference to the Srebrenica genocide was used as one of the pretexts to start a special operation;
- And Moscow stubbornly sticks to this narrative, stating in the UN Security Council that Ukraine is perpetrating genocide against the “people of Donbas,” the same fate awaits Russian-speaking Ukrainians if Russia withdraws its troops from Ukrainian territory.
Simultaneously, in the spring of 2022, Srebrenica was mentioned in Russian propaganda as a falsification, myth, and staging. This occurred after the liberation of Kyiv Oblast and the discovery of mass graves in Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel.
The Ukrainian Crisis Media Center investigated this matter in April of last year.
Thus, Russian rhetoric uses Srebrenica in two dimensions – as a genocide of the “people of Donbas” and as a myth created by the Ukrainian authorities. Both versions of the rhetoric have already been tested in Balkan media, which broadcast Kremlin narratives to all Balkan countries. This poses a danger to Ukraine because Russia already knows when to launch the necessary narrative and draw the international community’s attention to the allegedly unlawful actions of official Kyiv regarding civilians in the country’s eastern regions.
Therefore, the topic of Srebrenica must be clearly explained and researched both in the Ukrainian information space and in Ukrainian strategic communications.
The genocide in Srebrenica in international justice: the organized genocide of the civilian population in the safe zone of Srebrenica caught the attention of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the investigative service of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) immediately after the crime was committed. General Ratko Mladic of the Army of the Srpska and President Radovan Karadzic of the self-proclaimed Republic of Srpska were named the culprits.
Russian media referred to the judicial processes against the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs as illegal, arguing that there was no genocide in Srebrenica. Karadzic and Mladic were presented as defenders of the Bosnian Serbs, who were allegedly subjected to war crimes by Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats.
In November 1995, the prosecutorial service of the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) initiated criminal proceedings against them, accusing them of the genocide of Bosnian Muslim men. At that time, an arrest warrant was issued for their apprehension.
It took the prosecutorial service and investigators of the ICTY a considerable amount of time to prove the guilt of each individual involved in the Srebrenica genocide. In 2001, the judges handed down the first verdict under “genocide.” This case was against General Radislav Krstic, who, together with Ratko Mladic, led the offensive of the Army of the Republic of Srpska towards the UN-protected safe zone of Srebrenica.
Mladic himself and the former President of the Republic of Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, managed to evade punishment for a long time. Karadzic was arrested in 2008, Mladic in 2011. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide. Besides Krstic, Mladic, and Karadzic, 13 other individuals were imprisoned for varying terms related to this crime. Trials for genocide against Bosnian Muslims were also conducted against Slobodan Milosevic, but he passed away before the ICTY could reach a final verdict.
In 2007, the United Nations International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed the tribunal’s decision that the Army of the Republic of Srpska committed genocide in Srebrenica. This marked the end of the years-long process in which Bosnia and Herzegovina sought accountability from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).
The bipolar nature of Russian propaganda: denying the genocide in Srebrenica while warning of a “Srebrenica” in Ukraine
In 1993, the Bosnian government addressed the ICTY, accusing Yugoslavia of genocide against the Bosnian people and violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The proceedings continued until 2007, and in the final decision, the ICC mentioned that Serbia, as a country, was not responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica, although it could have prevented it. The court rejected the claim of genocide against all Bosniaks due to insufficient evidence and testimonies.
This aspect is now consistently used in statements by representatives of Bosnian Serbs, Russian scholars, and the Kremlin leadership, who use Srebrenica to manipulate public opinion and create an anti-Western narrative in the Serbian and Russian media.
Regarding the events in Srebrenica, the Russians deny them and prompt their Serbian proxies to do the same. However, when discussing Ukraine, they suddenly bring up the topic of the Srebrenica genocide. In this context, Russian propaganda manipulates facts, criticizes the West and international human rights organizations for not protecting civilians in Donbas, and does not accuse Ukraine of genocide. The Kremlin acts from the perspective of an attacking party rather than a defending one, and emotional components are not used in disseminating this narrative.
Serbian version of events
Russian and Serbian denial of genocide: The government of the Republic of Srpska and the leadership of Serbia acknowledge that civilians were killed in Srebrenica but refuse to recognize it as a well-planned and orchestrated crime. Russia supports their position and has joined in creating the myth of genocide in the UN-protected safe zone. With Russia’s support, the authorities of the Republic of Srpska established two so-called international commissions in 2019 – one to investigate the sufferings of all nations in Srebrenica from 1992 to 1995 and the other to investigate the sufferings of Serbs in Sarajevo from 1991 to 1995. The final reports of both commissions were released in 2021. The main conclusions emphasized that civilians of Bosnian Muslims were killed in Srebrenica, with an estimated number of around three thousand individuals (while the International Commission on Missing Persons officially counts 8372 Bosniaks killed in Srebrenica).
Additionally, not less than two thousand civilians were killed in the UN-protected safe zone, and ethnic cleansing and torture were perpetrated against Serbs in Sarajevo. Russia employs a similar tactic in the Donbas, covering up traces of its crimes and downplaying the number of civilians killed by the Russian army. For example, while the UN provides a figure of 9,000 affected civilians, Russia portrays these casualties as victims of Ukrainian nationalists from the Donbas. Manipulating numbers internationally is a well-established tool Russia uses in communication with the UN.
These “investigations” results were presented in the National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska (the local legislative body) and accepted in Moscow. Based on these findings, international conferences were held in Russia dedicated to the sufferings of Serbs in Srebrenica and nearby villages, aiming to distort the “truth” about the events in the UN-protected safe zone in July 1995, as propagated by the West.
The genocide against Serbs and crimes committed against them have become the subject of research by the Gorchakov Foundation (a Russian think tank funded by the Russian state budget), the Russian Academy of Sciences, and several non-governmental organizations also created with state funding. Thanks to this, the Republic of Srpska and Serbia received strong support for their claims that there was no genocide in Srebrenica.
In the summer of 2015, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution that would have recognized the actions of the Army of the Republic of Srpska in the Bosnian enclave as genocide. The United Kingdom put forward the resolution, but it was rejected. Russia and China applied their vetoes. Vitaly Churkin, the representative of the Russian Federation, stated after the vote that adopting such a document would undermine stability in the post-Yugoslav region.
With the support of Russia, Serbia has started revising the wars of the 1990s and reevaluating its role in them. With the help of the Kremlin and Russian media resources in Serbia, Belgrade began spreading narratives that portray Serbs as victims of genocide, which no one recognizes. In this way, Serbs not only initiated the process of rewriting a new version of history regarding the war crimes committed in the 1990s but also positioned themselves as victims rather than aggressors.
Thus, Srebrenica became a myth employed by the Republic of Srpska and Kremlin authorities. The leadership of the entity openly denies the Srebrenica genocide and, therefore, opposed the amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which provide for criminal liability for anyone who denies, ignores, or disputes war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity. These legislative changes were proposed in 2021 by the High Representative of the International Community, Valentin Inzko. However, according to the Dayton Peace Accords, the Republic of Srpska and Russia, as the guarantor of peace and stability in BiH, did not recognize the amendments to the Criminal Code.
According to a study by Austrian scientist Maria Mayer, published on the Srebrenica Memorial Center’s website, the genocidal rhetoric of the Kremlin intensified in the spring of 2022 when Putin claimed that the killings in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities, which were under temporary Russian occupation, were staged. The Kremlin and Russian media supported their claims with fake videos and photographs.
While the Republic of Srpska authorities seek to deny the genocide and present themselves as victims, Russia pursues another goal – to prove that any information from Western countries is false.
Genocide as a theme in Kremlin’s rhetoric allows for manipulations in the information space in several directions:
Spreading their perspective on mass killings of civilian populations.
This topic is highly sensitive and always triggers trauma within society, leading to its frequent avoidance in discussions and limited research with results presented to a narrow audience.
Srebrenica, for example, is rarely mentioned in the global media, usually only on the eve of the anniversary of the genocide on July 11. This information void is easily filled with other narratives produced in Moscow and disseminated through media and social networks.
The genocide of Russians in Ukrainian cities is not ignored as long as the Ukrainian government constantly references this crime. Moreover, politicians and diplomats from various countries who visit Ukraine also talk about the mass killings of civilians. Many of them include visits to places like Bucha or Irpin in their itineraries. In response to their statements, Russia intensifies its genocidal rhetoric against the Ukrainian authorities.
Playing with the number of victims.
This is especially noticeable in the case of Srebrenica. In Russia and the Republika Srpska, the number of killed Bosniaks is downplayed, while the number of killed Serbs is exaggerated.
Regarding Ukraine, Russian propaganda follows a similar principle. It acknowledges the presence of casualties but also spreads information about the killings of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, supposedly perpetrated by the “Kyiv regime.”
Minimizing the scale of the crime and its severity.
Russian propaganda does not deny the facts of killing civilians in Srebrenica and Ukrainian cities but denies that it was a planned policy based on ethnic criteria.
In the Republika Srpska, such rhetoric from Moscow is seen as support for their non-recognition policy and denial of the genocide in Srebrenica. However, Russia uses this case purely for its interests, accusing the Ukrainian authorities of war crimes against the “people” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the persecution of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. Although Moscow does not officially distance itself from the Republika Srpska, it blocks resolutions recognizing Srebrenica as genocide in various institutions. Russia also condemns the amendments to the Criminal Code of BiH that punish denial of genocide and other war crimes.
Risks of Russia’s genocidal rhetoric:
- Currently, the myth about Srebrenica in Kremlin propaganda, while significant for Russia, remains localized. Such rhetoric has not gained widespread traction globally, although Russia has the potential to initiate a broader campaign of spreading disinformation. However, this could backfire on Ukraine, as foreign pro-Russian politicians may start questioning the investigations conducted by various national and international law enforcement institutions regarding Russia’s war crimes and genocide in Ukraine.
- Ukraine’s lawsuit against Russia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding violations of the Genocide Convention could be rejected, similar to what happened in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Consequently, Ukraine may not receive compensation for the crimes committed by Russia. Additionally, Russia may avoid accountability for the perpetrated genocide as a state.
- Localizing the genocide to specific settlements in Ukraine could pose a risk for Ukraine in its case against Russia, as it may allow Russia to avoid broader responsibility and present the events as isolated incidents rather than part of a more extensive genocidal policy.
- During potential peace negotiations, the issue of the “people of Donbas,” which Russia claims to protect from “genocidal policies” by Kyiv, might resurface. This could become a further demand for a special status for the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR/LPR).