Balkan Strategic Studies

January 31, 1993

Croatia, at a Key Strategic Crossroad, Builds Militarily and Geographically

The January 25, 1993, Croatian National Guard's surprise offensive into the Krijena region of what has now been recognized as part of the Croatian State was the start of the end of Croatia's image abroad as the "injured party" in the current Balkan conflict. A tenuous peace had been in existence in and around the historically Serbian enclave of Krijena for more than a year. The main Croatian objective seemed to be to disrupt the Bosnia and Herzegovina peace negotiations which were coming to fruition in Geneva. The Croatian Government had said that it accepted the draft peace proposals for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but then intentionally ensured a breakdown in the overall Balkan peace process.

Croatia's military objectives in the offensive were blurred. The stated intention of recovering the bridge which linked northern Croatia to its Dalmatian coastal region, and to seize the airport, were not valid. It was already clear that these targets were ready to be handed over peacefully by the Serbs as part of a long-term settlement which would have allowed the Krijena Serbs to administer their own affairs. The Krijena offensive demonstrated Croatian military strength, but it also raised the question to an international audience as to whether the shape of Croatia itself, so hastily agreed by the European community and then the UN, is in fact legal or valid. Krijena was never a Croat area, and, indeed, Dalmatia itself was historically never part of the region normally associated with Croatia.

The offensive sent US and EC military and political policymakers and analysts scurrying for information on Croatian military capability. Croatian secrecy meant that there was almost no information available. Croatia's defense posture was, from the achievement of independence from the old state of Yugoslavia in 1991, conditioned primarily by the antagonism of the Croatian Government toward its neighbor, the "new" Yugoslavia. The Croatian Armed Forces, mainly built around the Croatian National Guard ground force, was created just before independence a a mobile, light force, relying heavily on German guidance and equipment, along with an assortment of illegally-acquired Western and Eastern bloc systems. The secondary consideration in the structure and mission of the Croatian Armed Forces rests in the country's expansionist aims within the region. This includes projection into the neighboring former Yugoslav state, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where -- by early 1993 -- Croatia had deployed 65,000 ground troops in 10 to 12 brigades of its approximately 77 National Guard brigades. [See map: Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, December 31, 1992. Croatian deployment into Bosnia and Herzegovina had reached only 40,000 by early December 1992.]

The Croatian Armed Forces acquired considerable quantities of weapons which had been cached in the republic by the old Armed Forces of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). In addition, during 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993, Croatia continued to acquire considerable quantities of Western and Eastern bloc equipment.

The effective annual defense expenditure of Croatia could not be easily identified, even by the Croatian Government. Much of the acquisition of weapons and systems has been undertaken through barter for Croatian goods and services, and much has been provided as covert aid from other friendly powers (Germany, principally is believed to have provided goods from the former East German Armed Forces inventory at little cost).

Weapons have come from a wide range of sources, even though German or other brokers participated in the embargo-busting. A squadron of ex-Soviet Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft was believed to have been negotiated from former Soviet stocks in the now-independent Republic of Georgia.

The principal force in the Croatian Armed Forces is the National Guard (Army). The Air Force began to acquire aircraft in 1992, however, and acquired the former Yugoslav Air Force bases which had been located in Croatia.

The Air Force itself is primarily equipped with former Soviet combat aircraft, although the international embargo on the provision of weapons into the region has meant that, by working illegally around the United Nations sanctions, Croatia has obtained a variety of different aircraft.

The Croatian Navy, formed on the effective secession of Croatia from Yugoslavia in 1991, inherited few vessels from the Yugoslav Navy. All mobile vessels in the Yugoslav Navy moved from Croatian ports, which had been its main bases for more than seven decades, to Montenegrin ports. Only those vessels left in drydock in such Croatian ports as Split and Dubrovnik were left by the Yugoslav Navy for Croatia. These totaled only some 13 patrol vessels.

No clear definition was available as to the command and control structure of the Croatian Armed Forces at the start of 1993. A number of ultra-nationalist Croatian forces were created in Croatia, and within the Croat community in Bosnia and Herzegovina during 1990 and afterwards. The extent of control over these groups by the Government varies.

Croatia's defense industrial capacity is fairly well advanced, despite the fact that some of the machinery and expertise in the facilities created by the Yugoslav Government was withdrawn when Croatia seceded from the federation. Croatian small arms factories are producing weapons, including an indigenously designed submachinegun, and it is believed that the M-84 main battle tank production line has been re-opened. This is highly significant in terms of its contribution to Croatia's order of battle. The M-84 is a highly-successful development of the Soviet T-72 design, but with far greater fire control sophistication. Kuwait, which has the M-84 (the only export customer from the old Yugoslavia), claims it to be superior to the US General Dynamics M-1A1 MBT.

It is believed also that the M-84 production line has been re-established inside new Yugoslavia, based on capacity and expertise removed at the time the federation began to break up.

Croatia, once part of Yugoslavia and before that part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is a crescent-shaped Balkan state in Europe, bordered on the north-west by Slovenia; on the west by the (Yugoslav) Serbian district of Vojvodina; on the north-east by Hungary; and on the west and north-east by Bosnia and Herzegovina. To the south-west it faces the Adriatic Sea.

Croatia, which had never in the modern context been an independent state, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. The end of that conflict, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, caused the Croatian National Sabor (parliament) to vote on October 28, 1918, for Croatia and Slavonia, with Rijeka and Dalmatia, to secede from Austria-Hungary. At the same time, a general convention in Ljubljana announced Slovenia's secession from Austria and its unification with Croatia and Serbia. The state of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was formed, and a parliament created for the new multi-state entity: the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, based in Zagreb.

On November 24, 1918, a special mission was appointed by the National Council to negotiate with the Government of Serbia. The negotiations resulted in the creation of the united Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on December 20, 1918, under the national leadership of what had, until that time, been the Serbian crown. When they joined the new Yugoslav Kingdom in 1918, Croatia and Slavonia with Srem had a territory of 42,533 Medjumurje, totalling 775 in area, was also under the jurisdiction of the Government of Croatia and Slavonia. [Modern Croatia, the boundaries of which were formed later by the Croatian leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz "Tito," now has a territorial area of 56,538, the additional land having been taken away from Serbia and what had been Dalmatia.] Dalmatia was an independent state at the time of its accession to the Yugoslav state, and had been self-governing since ancient times. Dalmatia's earlier roots had been with the Venetian Republic, unlike Croatia's roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, commonly known as Yugoslavia, the land of the Southern Slavs, changed its name officially on October 3, 1929, to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Croatia, coming under the Austro-Hungarian Empire for many centuries, was European in orientation. Its language -- Serbo-Croat -- is almost identical to the language spoken by Serbs, but it is written in Latin characters, whereas Serbian is written in cyrillic characters. As well, because of its history, Croatia has traditionally been a Roman Catholic Christian area, whereas Serbs have traditionally been Serbian Orthodox Christians.

Yugoslavia was originally divided into 32 administrative districts and then, in 1929, into banovine (regional units ruled by a ban). This new set of internal districts was not based on nationalism (ie: ethnicity), but on economic, geographic and other criteria.

Croatia, despite the fact that it had voted to join into the new Yugoslavia, remained passionately nationalistic throughout the years between 1918 and the start of World War II in 1939. That war was to prove the watershed for Yugoslavia, which stood in the path of Germany's access to the Eastern Mediterranean, an area vital to German reach toward the Middle Eastern oil reserves, and, among other things, the East-West trade links through the Suez Canal. the Armed Forces of Adolf Hitler's nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia without declaring war on April 6, 1941.

The surprise attack left Yugoslavia at Hitler's mercy, and an "Independent State of Croatia" (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska: NDH) was declared on April 14, 1941, the same day the German 14th Tank Division entered the Croatian capital, Zagreb. The NDH and the Croatian people as a whole overwhelmingly embraced the new German overlords of the "independent" state under the fascist head-of-state, Poglavnik (leader) Ante pavelic, head of the Ustaše movement.

The new NDH Government worked actively with the Germans to implement "ethnic cleansing" programs, but broadened the scope of the campaign to include the eradication of all Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. The NDH Government, through Dr Milovan Zanic, said at the time: "This will be a country of Croats and none other, and we as Ustaše will use every possible method to make this country truly Croat and purge it of the Serbs. We are not hiding this, it will be the policy of this state and when it is carried out, we will be carrying out what is written down in the Ustaše principles." The accession of the new NDH Government brought about an immediate campaign of genocide, principally against the Serbs, but also against Jews and Gypsies.

The NDH Government lasted only as long as Germany's nazi Third Reich survived, and collapsed in 1945. By that time, however, the NDH and its Ustaše Government had killed at least one-million Serbs, most of them by methods so brutal that German officers attached to Ustaše units complained to Berlin about the barbarity of their hosts.

The NDH Government established the largest concentration camp in the Third Reich at Jasenovac in August 1941. The Jasenovac Concentration and Labour Camp covered 210 in the area around the confluence of the Una and Sava rivers, and comprised a series of specialist camps, including at least one for infants. Jasenovac itself saw the deaths of some 600,000 people in 1,334 days and nights of killing. Some 20,000 children under the age of 14 were killed in the Jasenovac sub-camp at Donja Gradina. Roman Catholic Croatian priests worked actively to support the Ustaše, and one was commandant of Jasenovac for four months (during which time he personally killed at least 100 people and sent some 30,000 more to their deaths). [See also, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, December 31, 1992.]

The end of World War II saw the collapse of the Nazi puppet NDH state. Most of its leaders, and the Ustaše who were involved in the mass killings, fled the country. Ante Pavelic himself fled into Austria, where he was protected in Roman Catholic churches. From there, he fled to Rome with the help of false papers provided by the Roman Catholic church, and he his there in the Croatian Roman Catholic sanctuary of the Vatican, known as the San Geronimo Brotherhood. When it was known that the United States security forces were attempting to capture him, Pavellic was smuggled out by the brotherhood to Argentina, where he became a security adviser to Argentine President Juan Peron. Pavelic died peacefully in Argentina some years later. The Peronist Government subsequently gave 35,000 Ustaše visas to enter Argentina.

The comprehensive escape route and support apparatus for Ustaše war criminals became known as the "ratlines." Many of its membership were to return for the independence celebrations of the new state of Croatia when it once again became independent -- again with the help of Germany -- in 1991.

The collapse of Germany and the NDH saw the revival of a unified Yugoslavia, under the leadership of the communist partisan leader Josip Broz, known as Marshal Tito. Tito's partisans were under the control of his Communist Part of Yugoslavia, an organisation which had been initially established by the Soviet Comintern (Communist International). Leadership of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia during that period was substantially Croat and Slovene. But the partisans had also received considerable Allied assistance during World War II, to bolster the fight against the occupying German forces. The Allies had, in fact, favored Tito, despite his communism, over the royalist Col. Drazu Mihajlovic and his cetnik forces, which would have favored the restoration of the exiled monarchical Government after the ouster of the nazis.

The victorious Allies recognized the new Government under the Croatian communist Tito, who, on November 28, 1945, named the "second Yugoslavia" as the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia at a session of the Constituent Assembly. The Federal People's Assembly, on April 7, 1963, re-named it The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Tito, who was to all intents the sovereign leader of Yugoslavia until h is death, decreed that no discussion was to take place of the Croatian genocidal war against Serbia, and in the years that followed none of the anti-communist Croats in exile were seriously harried by Tito's security forces. Serbian anti-communist exiles were, however, constantly harried, even in remote countries such as Australia or the United States. As a result, an effective and wealthy expatriate Croatian community grew up outside the country.

During this period Croatia and Slovenia maintained their own national communist parties, while there was no communist party in Serbia. As a result, with the backing of the Comintern, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the new, post-World War II communist leadership of Yugoslavia was heavily structured in favor of the Croats and Slovenes, and against the Serbs. The Communist Party was the sole legal party of Yugoslavia from 1945 until the multi-party elections in the national republics in 1990.

During World War II, even before the occupying Germans were removed, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, under Tito, determined the new internal boundaries of the post-war federation. These federal units, or republics, reflected the decisive input of Tito and the Slovenian, Edvard Kardelj. As a result, post-war Yugoslavia showed internal federal, or republican, boundaries within what became known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), which favored Croatia and Slovenia territorially. There was little historical justification, for example, in lumping Dalmatia into Croatia, other than to give that republic strong sea access.

Tito knew that these artificial boundaries would not be accepted as "national" units, despite the fact that they bore nominal designation as the Republics of Croatia, Republic of Slovenia, etc. There was no discussion of these boundaries in legal terms either before the creation of the SFRY or afterwards. Tito himself said that the frontiers between the internal Yugoslav republics were only "administrative." Despite this "assurance," it was this boundary structure which was to be used as the legal definition of what were to become, in 1991, the independent and sovereign states of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

Tito was particularly suspicious of the Serbs who, although they were the most committed to the concept of a federal Yugoslav entity, were also regarded as the fount of the monarchy and "intrinsically monarchist," as opposed to communist. The result was that Croats and Slovenes were moved into the position of greatest power within Yugoslavia, despite the fact that some 70 percent of the officers in the Yugoslav Armed Forces were Serbs.

Tito died in May 1980, and was succeeded by a Collective Presidency which, despite the nationalist aspirations which began to re-surface, managed to hold Yugoslavia together until the 1990 multi-party elections. The new Government in Slovenia unilaterally declared its sovereignty, and then its independence from Yugoslavia, in 1991. Slovenia's independence and sovereignty were immediately, and unilaterally, recognized by Germany, forcing other European Community states, and then the United States, into recognizing the new status.

Meanwhile, in Croatia, the HDZ had won control of the Sabor on May 30, 1990, and had elected Dr Franjo Tudjman as President of the Republic. The Republic of Croatia was, at this time, still part of the broader Yugoslav Federation.

The German recognition of Slovenia pre-empted any opportunity for a peaceful break-up of the SFRY. Croatia followed Slovenia's lead, with Germany's support, declaring its independence and sovereignty. First, the sovereignty of Croatia was declared by the ruling HDZ in the Sabor on December 22, 1990. A new Croatian constitution was introduced by President Tudjman defining the state as the national state of the Croatian people "and others," immediately and pointedly relegating the Serbs, Muslims, Slovenes, Czechs, Italians, Jews, Hungarians and others to second-class status.

By early 1991, Croatia was preparing for full unilateral separation from Yugoslavia. A rally at the Zagreb football stadium on May 28, 1991, saw the parading of a large, well-equipped Croatian Army unit, which was inspected by Pres. Tudjman and other senior ministers. This was the National Guard Corps, which formed the basis of the new Croatian Armed Forces, along with the Ministry of Interior Affairs units, and "volunteer units." The first Minister of Interior Affairs in the HDZ Government, Martin Spegelj, was a senior general in the Yugoslav Armed Forces (JNA) at the time of the creation of the new Croatia. He said, on January 20, 1991, while the JNA was still officially the common army of Yugoslavia: "We are in the war with [ie: against] the Army (JNA). Should anything happen, kill them all in the streets, in their homes, through hand grenades, fire pistols in their bellies, women, children . . . We will deal with [the Croatian Serbian area of] Knin by butchering . . ." The new Croatian offensive of January 1993 was aimed directly at Knin, the capital of the historically Serb region of Krijena.

The rallies announcing Croatia's new freedom were marked by the official showing of the new State's symbols, which included the same red-and-white chequerboard shield which the Ustasha used before and during World War II. President Tudjman had already made his position clear: he invited to the first Convention of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in Zagreb more than a hundred Ustaše who had been declared war criminals as a result of World War II. They had come back to Croatia, often with their sons, from hiding in such countries as Australia, Argentina and elsewhere. At that convention, Tudjman defended the 1941-45 Independent State of Croatia as being not merely a "quisling creation," but also "an expression of the historical aspirations of the Croatian people for an independent state of their own and recognition of international factors -- the Government of Hitler's Germany in this case."

Revival of Croatian genocide against the Serbian residents of the state began before mid-year, 1991. Many Croatian Serbs packed, and began fleeing to Serbia where, by early 1993, there were some 800,000 refugees from the violence of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many left the Balkans altogether. By late 1991, Croatia began an organised elimination of Serbs in the districts of Grubisno Polje, Moslavina and Slavonska Pozegra. Many Serb residents fled first to Bosnia, and then were forced by additional fighting to flee to Serbia. The campaign by the Croatian Armed Forces spread throughout the republic wherever there were Serb villages or communities.

The violence against Serbs -- the "ethnic cleansing" of Croatia -- revived on a scale and method which reminded the victims of the genocidal actions during the 1941-45 days of the Independent State of Croatia. Some 450 Serbian Orthodox churches had been destroyed by Croats in that conflict. Between the beginning of 1991 and early 1993, Croats and Bosnian Muslims had destroyed a further 300 Serbian Orthodox churches.

The JNA was still officially engaged as the rear guard of the old Yugoslavia in 1991, and attempted vainly to withdraw without conflict into the new boundaries which were being created de facto for Yugoslavia: the boundaries of the states of Serbia and Montenegro. But there were aras where the JNA tried to stop the renewed genocide against the Serbian and other minority communities. Serbian groups within Croatia rallied and formed units such as the Serbian Volunteer Guards, and fought alongside the JNA in Laslovo and other areas, and in the attempt to free the city of Vukovar from Croatian control before all the Serbian residents were killed.

The Croatian Ustaše regarded Vukovar as one of the most important targets in the (1941-45) Independent State of Croatia. In one drive alone, during World War II, the Ustaše killed some 10,000 Serbian residents of Vukovar and surrounding areas. The Ustaše again took control of Vukovar and neighboring borovo between June 1 and November 23, 1991. At the Borovo footware factory at the exit from Vukovar, the Croats established a new concentration camp, rounding up and interning local Serbian civilians. At this site the Croats interned some 5,000 Serbs, and there and at the Rowing Club of Vukovar, the almost ritualistic killing of Serbs began again. The basement of the Borovo-komerc concentration camp also housed the headquarters of Marko Filkovic, commanding officer of the ZNG, the official Croatian National Guard Corps. More than 1,000 Serbs died in these two facilities, and on the streets and in their homes, before the JNA fought its way into Vukovar on November 23, 1991.

It was during the Vukovar conflict that the Croatian authorities began successfully experimenting with image-manipulating propaganda, forcing captured and inured Serbs to state in the Vukovar hospital, in front of video cameras, that they were being well-treated. Videotape was released to the international media and broadcast extensively worldwide. The statement did not save the prisoners, who were subsequently killed.

Germany was by this time fully supporting Croatia, and providing it with arms and other military supplies (as it h ad done before the official break with Yugoslavia). Germany's support contravened German and international laws, but fell in line with a German strategic outreaching of a type not seen since the end of World War II.

Pres. Tudjman claimed during 1991 and 1992 that Croatia was part of the European democratic and free market system, but some 90 percent of the economy by early 1993 was still in state hands, and the democratic freedoms typical in the rest of Europe were increasingly not in evidence in Croatia at that time. Freedom of speech was being curtailed throughout the country. The media was purged of Serbs, and editors — particularly in Dalmatia, which was never historically part of Croatia — were forced to toe a strict HDZ party line.

The HDZ, by late 1992, was attempting to assume the mantle of a Christian Democratic party, of the type prominent in Western Europe, despite the fact that its leadership was comprised largely of former senior communists of the Titoist and post-Tito SFRY years.

Croatia had, by late 1992, deployed some 40,000 of its forces, in 10 to 12 brigades, and backed by at least 60 main battle tanks and 80 heavy artillery pieces, into Bosnia and Herzegovina to aid Croats of that state to combat Serbs and Muslims, and sometimes to work with Muslims against Serbs. By early January 1993, the deployment had escalated to 65,000 troops. As well, Pres. Tudjman in 1991 ordered all the buildings and remaining structures at the World War II concentration camp of Jasenovac to be razed — with many of the artifacts and records inside — to make way for a "rare bird sanctuary". The move destroyed one of the reminders of Ustaše genocide of World War II, while the World War II Ustaše flag has been raised again.

Despite Tudjman's attempts to align with the European Christian Democratic movement, Croatia has been edging closer toward a one-party state structure. Tudjman does not stand on the extreme right of Croatian politics, despite his clear support for Ustaše genocidal and national-socialist policies. His move to have the HDZ totally dominate Croatian politics is a move to eliminate the ultra-Ustaše elements who feel that the President is not sufficiently rabid in his prosecution of Croatian geographic expansion and ethnic purity. He is, nonetheless, moving rapidly toward consolidating Croatia's current geographic gains.

Croatia: Defense Basics

Minister of National Defence: Gojko Susak.
Total armed forces: 170,000.
Paramilitary forces: Extensive, but numbers not known.
Numerous paramilitary factions not entirely under Government control, some answering to opposition political factions (but which support "Croatia for Croatians" policies).
Available manpower: 1.888-million men between 15 and 49 years of age, with 43,000 reaching military age each year.
National Guard Corps Battle Order
Manpower: 167,000.
Organization: 77 brigades


Armor: 270 main battle tanks of T-54/55, T-32 and M-84 types. Additional 130 T-72 MBTs being delivered.

Armored vehicles: 380 armoured personnel carriers of various types. 200 additional armoured vehicles being delivered.

Artillery: 820 heavy artillery pieces, comprising Multiple Rocket Launchers (MRL); M-63 Plamen; M-77 Obanj; 105mm, 122mm, 152mm, 155mm and 203mm towed howitzers; 122mm SP howitzers; 67mm and 130mm guns.

AT Rockets: 2,500+ Armbrust, RPG-7, Mamba launchers.

ATGW: Euromissile Milan (reported).

SSMs: Unknown quantities of R-300 Scud SSM. Assorted other missiles.

SAM: 100+ Short Blowpipe and numerous GD Stinger (manportable). Some ex-Soviet heavy SAM systems believed acquired.

AAA: 600 assorted anti-aircraft artillery systems.

Mortars: M-82, 60mm, 82mm and 120mm.

Small arms: Principal infantry weapon is AK-47. Locally-produced Sokac submachinegun introduced April 1992.

Foreign deployment: 65,000 troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

NB: Negotiations currently (end-January 1993) underway for the acquisition of 300 further T-72 MBTs, additional Armbrust AT rocket launchers, additional GD Stinger man-portable SAMs, and SA-7 Grail man-portable SAMs.
Naval Battle Order
Manpower: 1,000.


4 patrol boats.

2 rocket boats.

1 torpedo boat.

6 assault boats.

24 small craft.

Coastal artillery: Several coastal batteries with 85mm, 88mm and 90mm guns. 16 coastal artillery batteries with 130mm guns.
Major naval bases: Split, Rijeka, Dubrovnik.

Air Force Battle Order
Manpower: 2,000.


2 air combat/ground support squadrons with 25 MiG-21s.

1 ground attack squadron of Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot.

At least one multi-purpose squadron with at least 40 propeller-driven aircraft of various types, possibly including two Saab 105s.

Helicopters: 24 helicopters of various types; mostly armed. 12 Mi-2, 6 Mi-8, 2 Puma and four Gazelle helicopters ordered, probably delivered.

Trainers: Some propeller aircraft (above) may be used for training. Four L-59 jet training/light attack aircraft ordered and possibly delivered.
Major Air Bases: Zagreb, Krk, Pula.

NB: Negotiations currently (end-January 1993) underway for unspecified numbers of MiG-29 air combat aircraft, MiG-21 air combat aircraft, Il-76 transport aircraft, An-2 transport aircraft, Mi-8 helicopters, various aircraft bombs and air-to-air missiles, air defense radar systems, surveillance radar systems.