Ghosts of Balkans Haunt Ukraine

By James Kitfield

Rare is the diplomatic crisis that is bungled by all sides. You have to go back all the way back to the initial breakup of Yugoslavia and the Balkans crisis of the 1990s to find a historic parallel for Ukraine today, which should give all sides pause about the potential perils that lie ahead.

The Players.

Viktor Yanukovych. In this case the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stands in for Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, the unscrupulous Serbian nationalist who fanned the flames of ethno-sectarian tensions for personal political gain as Yugoslavia dissolved, and became the leader of an ostracized rump state before ending his life in a War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. 

For his part, having dug an economic hole more than $15 billion deep while enriching his family and cronies, Yanukovych decided to play the European Union against Russia in order to find the highest bidder offering a lifeline, knowing this would exacerbate the simmering West-versus-East fault-line that divided his own people. His choice of Russia’s nearly $20 billion bailout package sparked protests that he put down with lethal force, leading to the end of his regime. Today Yanukovych has been forced to beg for asylum to the Kremlin, where Vladimir Putin has granted his wish but simmers in his hatred of Yanukovych for ruining his post-Sochi honeymoon.

The European Union.  In 1991 the European Community prematurely recognized the independence of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in hopes of ending the ethnic violence that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War. The attempt to draw those new republics under Europe’s umbrella of peace and stability, however, backfired. The recognition arguably hastened the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, and certainly did nothing to forestall the Balkans wars of the 1990s

More recently, the European Union could not resist trying to use its “soft power” to draw Ukraine towards the West, offering Yanukovych a trade agreement that would have put the country on a path towards EU membership.  However generous or well-meaning their intentions, the Europeans seemed oblivious to the fact that such an offer was sure to infuriate the Kremlin and Putin, who sees Ukrainian membership in the Russian-led “Eurasian Union” ( along with Belarus and Kazakhstan) as critical to reestablishing Russia’s regional sphere of influence.

The United States.  In the early 1990s Washington initially insisted that the Europeans handle a Balkans crisis in their own backyard, until it became clear that they were incapable of coping with the spreading violence. Ultimately the United States was forced to intervene directly, brokering the Dayton Accords to end the conflict and leading a NATO peacekeeping force into the region.

As part of its strategy of “leading from behind,” the Obama administration also seemed content to let the Europeans take the lead in dealing with Ukraine.  Until Yanukovych chose Russia, mass protests erupted in Kiev, and the crisis blew up in the Europeans’ face.  At which point Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland rendered the U.S. judgment on the diplomatic debacle: “Fuck the European Union.” 

The Obama administration has since launched into a flurry of diplomatic activity in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, but the ink was hardly dry on the deal for power-sharing and early elections earlier this week that US officials helped broker before demonstrators forced Yanukovych to flee for his life. Now the Obama administration and its European counterparts are left holding the bag of a potential bailout for Ukraine that will be a hard sell in cash-strapped Washington and Brussels. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia that it would be a “grave mistake” to intervene in Ukraine, but that didn’t stop pro-Russian militias from occupying the parliament building in the capital of Crimea, or Russian troops from occupying the major airport in the province. Recall that similar warnings were issued to Moscow in 2008 just before Russian troops invaded Georgia.

Russia.  Moscow’s desire for a sphere of influence, loyalty to unsavory clients and penchant for viewing events in its region through a zero-sum prism (where any gains for Western influence represent a loss for Russian prestige) predate Putin. After diplomatically backing its historic allies in Serbia during the 1990s Balkans wars, Russia eventually sent peacekeepers to the region to serve alongside NATO peacekeepers. After the 1999 Kosovo war, Russian and NATO forces very nearly clashed as both sides rushed towards the Pristina airport to fill the vacuum of retreating Serbian forces.

In the current crisis Putin has reacted to the fall of the compliant Yanukovych and unrest in the Crimea, home of the Russian Black Sea Naval Fleet, by predictably mounting military exercises on the border with Ukraine involving 150,000 Russian troops.  Russian officials have also issued bellicose statements that amount to pouring rhetorical gas on the flames in Ukraine. And yet the last thing Putin needs is a Balkans-like civil war on his border that sparks a similarly unpredictable spiral of events. Of course, that was also true of Russia’s backing Serbia during the Balkans conflict, which burned for the better part of a decade and killed more than 100,000 civilians

 

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