A red skull on a black background: This is the emblem of the notorious Russian mercenary group “Wagner”. For years, this private army has intervened in conflicts in many countries around the world, spreading fear and terror. She is also fighting alongside the regular Russian army in Ukraine.
Already after the Russian attack on February 24, 2022, murals appeared in the Serbian capital Belgrade, with which the group was celebrated. Is Wagner recruiting Serbian volunteers for the war in Ukraine? Videos circulating on social media seem to back this up.
They show Serbian fighters in Russian units in Ukraine. They mostly talk in Serbian about their education and their motives for taking part in the war.
To date, the Serbian authorities have not commented on these performances – according to critics, out of consideration for the traditionally strong pro-Russian sentiment in Serbia. This is also the reason why the EU candidate country has not yet imposed any sanctions on Russia.
Citizens of Serbia have been actively involved in the conflict in Ukraine since the occupation and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Serbs are forbidden by law from serving in foreign armies. According to the Ministry of Defense and security agencies in Belgrade, all information about compatriots fighting in Ukraine is carefully collected.
How many people were recorded by the Serbian authorities was not published. The Embassy of Ukraine in Serbia estimated in 2019 that about 300 people from Serbia are involved in the war in Ukraine – all on the side of Russia. According to security authorities, more than 30 people have been convicted of involvement in the Ukraine war. This does not prevent right-wing extremist organizations from promoting the Wagner group on social networks.
The fact that Wagner himself recruited fighters in Serbia has since been denied by the founder of the mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin. And Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic publicly condemned a Wagner recruitment advertisement on the website of the Serbian service of Russia’s state media provider Russia Today (RT), which has since been deleted.
One of the Wagner emblems in Belgrade has now been painted over. Activists from the group “Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Serbs together against the war” had previously protested against the graffiti. This group brings together citizens of the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine who fled to Serbia from the regime of President Vladimir Putin.
Serbian anti-war activists have also filed criminal charges against a number of Serbian state officials, accusing them of failing to prevent the recruitment of volunteers for the war in Ukraine. The activists also oppose various right-wing organizations in Serbia, which they accuse of promoting the public image of the Wagner group. This represents an attempt to mobilize Serbian citizens for a war abroad and is therefore illegal.
Neighboring EU and NATO member Croatia fully supports the European Union’s Russia policy. Both the government in the capital Zagreb and the vast majority of citizens have stood up for Ukrainian citizens who fled to Croatia since the Russian attack on Ukraine almost a year ago. In the labor market, the refugees were even given the same status as Croatian citizens.
Croatians are also fighting in Ukraine – mostly on the side of the attacked Ukrainians. In the first half of 2022, private TV channels aired interviews with several dozen people who had joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces or were on their way to Ukraine to do so. Unofficially, there was talk of 70 to 80 Ukrainian fighters with Croatian citizenship.
The interviews and other media reports suggest that these are the same people who were involved in the same way at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. However, there was never any official and, above all, precise information on how many Croatian volunteers traveled there.
According to Russian sources, about 200 Croats have gone to Ukraine since the end of February 2022. Most would have joined the Azov regiment. However, this was contradicted by Denis Seler, the right-wing ex-boss of the hooligans at the Dinamo Zagreb football club, who had fought on the side of the Ukrainians for years after 2014 and is described by Moscow as the “organizer of the Croatian mercenaries”.
Croatian authorities have not in any way encouraged the participation of Croats in the war in Ukraine. On the contrary, it was repeatedly pointed out that this is an extremely risky undertaking at your own risk. Accordingly, the negotiations on the return to Croatia of the Croat Vjekoslav Prebeg, who had been captured near Mariupol as a Ukrainian fighter and brought before a Russian court, were conducted with appropriate discretion. In September 2022, he was allowed to return to Croatia after a prisoner exchange.
A few Croatian citizens have joined the Russian armed forces. Only Mirela Jakupanec, who works as a paramedic on the side of Russia, made it into the public eye. Some sources refer to her as a nurse, others as a doctor. Her pro-Russian statements were mainly disseminated by portals known for fake news and Kremlin propaganda.
Despite all solidarity with Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers are not welcome in Croatia. The parliament in Zagreb rejected a government request to allow Ukrainians to be trained on Croatian territory as part of the European mission EUMAM. Opinion polls had previously shown that almost 60 percent of the Croatians surveyed rejected the project.
In contrast to the Zagreb government, Croatia’s President Zoran Milanovic publicly supports the thesis that the war in Ukraine is a proxy war between Washington and Moscow. For this he was praised, among others, by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Autor: Ivica Petrovic (Belgrade), Sinisa Bogdanic (Zagreb)
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The original of this article “Serbs and Croats in the war in Ukraine” comes from Deutsche Welle.