By Charles Recknagel
When Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at Ukraine, does he see Bosnia?
The Balkan country, which has a tri-partite presidency that reflects its ethnic balance, has remained at peace for almost two decades since the 1995 Dayton Accords ended its three-year war.
But it is widely regarded as a state in permanent crisis, where no party is able to rise above its ethnic base. And while neighbors have joined or made steps toward joining the European Union, NATO, and other Western institutions, Bosnia has been stymied by its federal structure.
Such an outcome, according to Russian analysts who watch Kremlin policy closely, appeals to Moscow when it discusses the situation in Ukraine.
"The ideal scenario for Russia would be the Bosnian model, and it has been discussed many times," says Feodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based "Russia in Global Affairs."
"The east should get broad autonomy, be almost entirely self-governed but formally be part of the Ukrainian political and legal field."
Moscow has never publicly proposed that Ukraine become a loose federation of its Russian-speaking eastern regions and Ukrainian-speaking western one, just as Bosnia has a Serbian entity and a Bosniak-Croat entity. But the Bosnian model would offer an alternative to two solutions Russia considers unacceptable.
One is Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's vision of devolving more of the Ukrainian central governments' powers to the country's regions -- something Moscow says would be insufficient to solve the crisis.
The other is the breakup of Ukraine, which Moscow has repeatedly said it does not favor.
But there may be a larger reason why the Bosnia model appeals to Moscow, and that is how well it could serves Russia's own strategic interests.
Lukyanov says it is important that the eastern areas now controlled by the separatists remain part of Ukraine "because the Russian goal is to get mechanisms how to prevent, in case of emergency or necessity, Ukrainian geopolitical moves toward, for example, NATO membership, which is seen in Russia rightly or wrongly as an existential threat."
Were Ukraine to follow Bosnia's example, the separatist-controlled east would likely have a closer relationship with Russia than with Kyiv.
"In theory, the territorial integrity of the country will be preserved but eastern Ukraine's status will be similar to that of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and it will have closer ties with Russia than the rest of the Ukraine," Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, noted earlier this year in a commentary for Prospect magazine.
That could mean a united yet divided Ukraine that would unable to make any decisions about its foreign and economic policies without the tacit approval of Moscow.
Ukrainian analysts say Kyiv is well aware of Russia's interest in a Bosnia solution and the dangers it poses.
"The messages we receive show that representatives of the separatists are beginning to drop their insistence on independence in exchange for the transformation of Ukraine into a second Bosnia," Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, told Ukraine's television Channel 5 on September 2.
But finding a way to convince Moscow to give up its drive to rebuild the Ukrainian state is exceedingly difficult.
Ivan Lozowy, an independent policy analyst in Kyiv says that in face of Russia sending soldiers and tanks into the east of the country last month, the Ukrainian government is losing faith in the possibility of negotiating a solution to the crisis.
"The problem, the bottom line, is that either Ukraine cedes sovereignty over portions of eastern Ukraine or it does not," Lozowy says. "And it is a fairly clear line, because increased autonomy, some additional powers -- all of Ukraine's regions could use those. But obviously Putin and his local surrogates are demanding much more."