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Ukraine Conflict and Bosnian War: Similarities

Donjeck, 26. februar 2015.

In the latest edition of The Bridge, moderator Omer Karabeg and his guests compared the conflict in Ukraine with the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.

Dusan Lazic, former Serbian Ambassador to Ukraine, and Nerzuk Curak, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo discussed Russia’s attempts to hide the military aid it sends to separatists in eastern Ukraine, just as Serbia once tried to hide participation offormer Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) units in the war in B&H.

It covered motivations of the conflicts, the Western use of economic sanctions to stop them and whether Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine to have the same status as the Serb Republic, the Serb entity in B&H. Also addressed: How Ukraine might fare in comparison to B&H when its conflict is ended.

Omer Karabeg: Are there similarities between Ukrainian and Bosnian wars?

Dusan Lazic: Those wars were waged at different times and in different international circumstances. .. a comparison of Ukrainian and Bosnian wars is possible simply because armed conflicts are similar, especially when they happen in one country or involve one integration.

Nerzuk Curak: It would be interesting to compare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Both took place in the same timeframe, but while dissolution of the Soviet Union was peaceful, Yugoslavia fell apart in a brutal war and radical violence. It is hard to compare the Bosnian and Ukrainian conflicts, because the Ukrainian one is still of low intensity, while the war against B&H had horrifying elements – mass crimes, including genocide, siege of Sarajevo and so on.

Karabeg: Isn’t there a similarity to have neighbors – Serbia and Russia –helping one side in the conflict, arming it and sending their armies. Russia denies it, and Serbia denied it too.

That is correct. We have strong involvement of those neighboring countries at the same time they claim there is no involvement. In the case of B&H a consequence of that involvement was permanent presence of Serbia and Croatia, and their strategic interests in the country even after the war. That was allowed by the Dayton Peace Accords. It seems to me that Russia planned a similar role in Ukraine.

Lazic: It seems to me [that] wars are started because of internal issues of certain countries – because of a disintegration, because of aspirations to goals that cannot be achieved until international conditions are met... In both there are many religious and national elements. There are deep divisions in Ukraine – from religious to political. There are historical animosities between Russian and Ukrainian peoples. A lot of those elements existed in the former Yugoslavia, but were not visible during the Cold War. When that ended, when the world restructured itself, those animosities became visible in the worst possible way.

Curak: We [must discuss]… two key issues that are a sort of cultural and social cause of the BiHand the war in Ukraine. Conservative and rigid nationalist ideology in Serbia… has seen B&H as an exclusively Serb country. And Russia’s traditional geopolitical standpoint holds the same view of Ukraine.

I have been reading Aleksandr Dugin recently. He is the leading nationalist guru of Russian geopolitical policy and promotes a Eurasian civilization with Russia in the center as the key empire. Dugin says that Ukraine cannot be a sovereign country because it divides Russia’s power as a great continental force. According to him, that must not be allowed.

I believe that conquest of territory is crucial to both wars. [But]…different instruments are used – such as an unresolved national issue, complex religious structure and so on.

Karabeg: You believe conquest is behind both wars?

Curak: Yes, because foreign territories are seen as the exclusive spiritual space of aggressive forces. They want to control territory with all its resources, not only natural but symbolic, cultural and spiritual. That is behind both wars.

Lazic: War for territory is a foundation of every armed conflict, but is not being portrayed as such. [Instead] the right of its ownpeople living in another country is cited. Russians and Ukrainians are truly two close peoples, historically close. Even though there was animosity between them in recent history, they were able to find common ground as long as the Soviet Union was an imperial force. When the Soviet Union fell apart, territorial ambitions became visible.

When it comes to Kosovo, Russia claims it is integral part of Serbia and it advocates respect to its territorial integrity and sovereignty. When it comes to Ukraine, the former Soviet Union in which, aside from Ukrainians and other peoples, Russians also live, it is acting differently. There we have territorial expansionism. Russia annexed Crimea and it entered eastern Ukraine with its military force, on the territory of another country, explaining it is protecting its people. But territorial ambitions are hidden behind it.

Karabeg: Protection of its people who happen to live inthe territory of another country was also Belgrade’s explanation when it started the war.

Curak: There is no doubt that the idea of protection of one’s people is aconcept used to justify violent policy…I would like to add one more thing I find important. We somehow accepted Crimea’s annexationin accordance with the same scenario, and that is the most worrisome thing.

I wonder if the international community, by allowing Russia to annex Crimea, ended its Westphalian political order, so that borders have become administrative lines as Slobodan Milosevic liked to say, and [I wonder]whether we are witnessing anew era in which several key players will draw the world’s political map in a completely different way.

Karabeg: It seems that fear of conflict dictates pliability of the West toward the aggressor. Let’s say separatists in Ukraine have taken the strategically important city of Debaltseve after the cease-fire was declared, and the West ignored it, and then German Foreign Minister [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier stated that only an invasion of Mariupol would mean clear violation of the Minsk agreement. The agreement had already been violated. That happened in the Bosnian war too. There was always pliability towards the aggressor.

Lazic: What you said about Ukraine and pliability towards the aggressor I would take with a grain of salt. I do not completely deny it, but I do think that we are witnessing turbulent arm wrestling between Russia on one side and the United States and Europe on the other side. It seems there is a possibility this latest agreement from Minsk might give us some hope.

There are indications that conflicts, not necessarily armed ones, [might spread] to other countries and regions. We see that concern in the statement of US Secretary of State John Kerry… [that some former Yugoslav republics might be in “the line of fire”] in relations between Washington and Moscow. He also mentioned Baltic states, including Georgia, Moldavia and Transdniester. And we see Putin reacting harshly to the decision of the Serbian Prime Minister to strengthen cooperation with the European Union and the West.

Curak: When we talk about the West’s fear of conflict spreading, we should return to 2008 when Russia seemed to start preparations for what is happening in Ukraine. At a NATO Summit in Bucharest, the possibility of Ukraine’s becoming a member of the Western military alliance was mentioned…. Since then, Russia has started a big strategic game around Ukraine fearing the country might become NATO member. That is a red flag for Russia and it will use any means to prevent Ukraine’s entry to NATO.

During the war in B&H, the international community was led by the United States. That community created a peace agreement for B&H. Russia was very weak then. It was Yeltsin’s Russia which, as obedient servant, accepted anything the international communityplanned. Today,we have a different international community in which Russia is no longer a weak player.

Karabeg: I keep insisting on similarities between the war in B&H and the war in Ukraine. Here is another similarity. Brussels and Washington used economic sanctions in both cases tostop Moscow.

Curak: That is not a key similarity between the two wars. I believe the key similarity lies in the way the political community developedafter the war. I think that we will have a sort of the Dayton Peace Agreement scenario in Ukraine… I presume such a constitution of Ukraine will be something United States, Europe and Russia will agree onto prevent spreading the war and a new shift in power in Europe.

Lazic: Mister Curak mentioned the Dayton Peace Accords. Well, even the Dayton agreement is not the original child of former republics of Yugoslavia, but a result ofpressure when the international forces finally decided to stop the war in the former Yugoslavia. The main achievement of the Dayton agreement is stopping the war, but its main weakness is that it left a possibility of being interpreted differently later.

Karabeg: I get the impression that Putin would prefer Ukraine structured according to B&H model, namely to have eastern Ukraine as some sort of the Republika of Srpska, rather than annex that part of Ukrainian territory to Russia as it did with Crimea.

Lazic: I believe we must carefully interpret stances of Russia and Ukraine. Currently authorities in Ukraine are aware that divisions in the country are so big and deep that the country must face constitutional reforms, and those constitutional reforms do not refer only to eastern part of Ukraine, but the country as a whole… Kiev is talking about decentralization. Moscow, however, does not talk about decentralization. Russian officials keep saying they support the autonomy of eastern Ukraine...

We should also keep in mind that Russia is no longer the country it was after dissolution of the Soviet Union, but a Russia demanding concessions when it comes to former Soviet republics, even some countries that are now part of the European Union. We are dealing with old stances in new clothes...

Russia is now clearly saying it is not content with its current position and the West must acknowledge that. I believe that western analysts and those creating policy of western countries underestimated this Russian orientation…We are now on dangerous ground because the West does not know how far Russia is willing to go, and Russia does not know how far the West is willing to go when it comes the their relationship.

Karabeg: Do you think Putin wants to make a sort of Republika Srpska out of eastern Ukraine?

Curak: Yes. Mister Lazic reminded us of [Former Prime Minister Leonid] Brezhnev’s doctrine of limited sovereignty. It seems t Putin is an heir of that ideology in a geopolitical sense. He believes that Russia should be able to control Ukraine in such a way that does not radically violate international legal norms. Thus the comparison with the Dayton-based B&H.

Just as the Dayton Peace Agreement acknowledged results of violence,Putin now counts on making a new constitutional composition of Ukraine by acknowledging results of violence and allowing some sort of partial Russian control over a part of Ukraine.

I believe that Putin is not now willing to completely violate the international law and annex one part of Ukraine, because he might lose too much. It could lead to more radical intervention by the West, because annexing of a part of Ukraine might be seen as a line that had been crossed. What would the dissolution of Ukraine mean, what message would it send? I am absolutely certain that Putin would be happy if Ukraine would be structured as today’s unsuccessful, schizophrenic B&H.

Karabeg: Do you, Mister Lazic, believe that Putin would be happy if Ukraine was structured as B&H, with eastern Ukraine serving as some sort of the Serb Republic?

Lazic: I do not know Russian ambitions... Ukraine is a country that holds the biggest territory in Europe -- not including Russia -- that is not only European, but a Eurasian country. That must not be overlooked. Also, Ukraine has population of 45 million.

Finally, Ukraine was one of the most developed parts of the Soviet Union. Regardless that it is not keeping up with today’s technological advances, it represents a great force. If division of Ukraine was allowed, it would open a number of issues…. That is why I believe it is necessary to do everything to keep Ukraine from splitting as a country.

Karabeg: Is it possible for Ukraine to fare worse than B&H – that the current crisis would not end with some sort of the Dayton Peace Agreement and that this war would turn into some frozen conflict?

Curak: The Dayton Peace Agreement formed a sort of frozen conflict through attempts to create a successful, self-sustainable political community, which is why such a process is so hard and slow. It is hard to give a single and reliable answer about the near future of Ukraine.

Lazic: I agree that the war in Ukraine could end as frozen conflict. Wherever we have a situation in which one side is getting little and another side is losing little… that turns into a frozen conflict…. The core of dealing with a frozen conflict is to avoid …hard problems and wait for better times. I think that is not a bad tactic, but I also think that there is a danger of things getting out of control and developing in a way nobody wants.