It has become commonplace for analysts writing about an endgame for Ukraine to note that, “while it is up to Ukraine to decide its own fate,” the United States and its allies can “catalyze” talks, and, in doing so, presumably influence them. This sentiment that the Ukrainians’ fate should be their own is admirable. But the role of the West is so critical that the extent to which continued support to Ukraine’s defense could be made contingent on western interests should not be underestimated. Now, as the war has settled into a new attrition-based phase, inflation, global food shortages, and rising energy prices risk fracturing Western unity, as some countries lose patience with the economic price of defending their values.
References to “offramps” and deals emerged soon after the war began, often explicitly linked to fears of escalation; so did warnings about the risks of appeasement. Henry Kissinger famously showed his continued dedication to amoral realpolitik, suggesting Ukraine should simply be expected to cede territory. An exercise in envisioning a draft framework for peace was offered in mid-March – less than a month after the start of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – suggesting a mix of internationally supervised military force withdrawal, the creation of “autonomous entities,” and a structured limitation on Ukraine’s ability to join bodies like NATO or the European Union.
Most recently, Michael O’Hanlon suggested a number of options for compromise deals, showing an understandable interest in stopping the bloodshed through a variety of possible interim arrangements that, in theory, would buy time for a peacefully negotiated outcome. He notes that lessons might be learned from places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, South Sudan, or East Timor. However, the experience of the first two of those, in the Western Balkans, clearly shows that such interim arrangements can easily become a recipe for prolonged and protracted political conflicts that fail to sate the appetites of political entrepreneurs or warmongers, who instead learn to feed from them as internationally validated statesmen.
While proposals such as the above are surely well-intended, let there be no doubt that these scenarios would be a loss for the West, would result in a win for Moscow in Ukraine, and would contribute to the broader geostrategic instability that for Putin is the main point. Dissecting these is instructive when considering Ukraine’s future options. While the comparison in my analysis is Bosnia, the effect of policies that support a “permanent interim” is also seen in Kosovo, and the impact of both cases continues to be destabilizing and felt throughout the region.
The Lure of a `Future Referendum’
First, with regard to the status of “disputed territories,” O’Hanlon suggests the possibility of a “future referendum” to determine whether the people in those areas would prefer to stay in Ukraine, become a part of Russia, or be independent. Voting after ethnic or political cleansing represents perhaps the worst kind of gerrymandering, and makes it possible for bad actors to claim political legitimacy for violent population expulsions. Even in Bosnia, which had substantial international electoral observation and a historically ambitious effort to enable post-war population return, the combination of wartime expulsions and concerted and undeterred exclusionary post-war policies meant that the party most committed to the post-aggression status quo (in Bosnia, the Serbs; in Ukraine, the Russians) will win. In Bosnia, we see this most starkly in Srebrenica, which just marked the anniversary of the genocide that permanently changed the structure of that population.
O’Hanlon also mentions the possibility of “autonomous zones,” citing Brčko, a strategically significant town in the northeast corner of Bosnia. The question of who “got” Brčko nearly scuttled peace talks in Dayton in 1995, so the final status of this bit of land was left to international arbitration. Ultimately, a compromise deal made the area a district held by the country’s two “entities” (the majority Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat Federation and the majority Serb Republika Srpska), “under the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” But neither entity would exercise authority, as all governing powers would be delegated by the entities to the district government, with Brčko subject to the common institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The District was also to be overseen by an American supervisor with sweeping ability to push reform processes and marginalize spoilers.
This initially worked, and led to positive local reforms that were notable in a place that had suffered a particularly brutal war. However, without substantially fixing the broader post-Dayton political deficits, the experiment was unable to thrive as intended, let alone become a local laboratory for democracy. Instead, the party politics of the rest of the country have turned the district into a localized partitocracy, where party and ethnic identification determine everything from who gets a civil service job to student governance. It would be familiar to a resident in Lebanon.
O’Hanlon further suggests that an international peace observation mission in Ukraine could monitor a ceasefire along the current front lines, to serve as a deterrence to further attack. In Bosnia, Annex 1A of the Dayton Peace Agreement enabled a NATO force of 50,000-plus troops with a robust peacekeeping mandate to ensure a safe and secure environment for peace implementation. It succeeded in preventing post-war territorial incursions; this force had no competition in Bosnia or in the greater regional theater. In contrast, in the case of Ukraine, no such assembled force could ever have equal standing to the aggressor – the Russian military. O’Hanlon notes that the primary power of military observers from many different countries would be the risk to their lives (and the presumed uproar should some be killed or taken hostage).
Yet in Bosnia, the success of the force in fulfilling its military objectives was necessary, but not sufficient to ensure full peace implementation. After some initial years of progress, civilian implementation of the peace agreement slowed, stalled, and reversed. Diplomats who had expected reform and progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration to be inevitable, suffered from a failure of imagination in seeing the alternatives to accountable liberal democracy. They were instead bamboozled by a now generation-long effort by spoilers to functionally partition the country through non-military means – most effectively (but not solely) by the Serbs, who have assiduously built up links, structures, and policies within their entity on everything from education to development with neighboring Serbia, while minimizing, ignoring, or blatantly countering obligations to the state to which the entity belongs. One of the most notable and notorious examples of that bucking of obligations has been Annex 7 of the peace agreement, which granted the right to return. And throughout the obstruction, corruption has become commonplace.
This steady and concerted effort at undermining the state from within represents a Trojan Horse approach to exploiting interim arrangements to enable ongoing domestic political interference that actually sustains conflict. It’s a tactic Putin has encouraged not only in Bosnia — the unresolved conflict between Serbia and Kosovo is another example. Negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina have long been stalled, including over the proposal for an Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo, viewed warily by many in Kosovo as an opportunity for another pseudo-entity statelet that could negatively impact governance in Kosovo while formalizing ties to Serbia. Putin is well aware of how he could take a similar approach in Ukraine, to both strengthen his foothold in the east and to hamstring Kyiv through pseudo-federal “compromises.”
Wishful Waiting for a Spoiler’s Demise
O’Hanlon specifically notes that this middle-way approach could yield benefits once Putin is gone. However, again looking at the Balkans, we see that such wishful thinking can be misplaced. The hope that a new leader will enable a new playing ground ignores the structural legacies of autocrats and their support systems. When Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic died (while incarcerated for war crimes, yet not living to see a final judgement) there had been hope that Serbia – and in turn the region, including Bosnia and its Serb-controlled entity – might enter a new era. For a short time, it did. However, domestic and international factors then once again rekindled the conflict drivers. Domestically, the political economy (characterized by pervasive corruption) remained unreformed. Internationally, the unresolved issue of Kosovo and the spoiler role played by Moscow in encouraging Serbia to maintain a foot in the east rather than stepping firmly towards Brussels, ensures that a state of perpetual conflict and grievance continues to dominate and to prevent the country – and the region – from moving forward.
Again, this sort of compromise thinking is grounded in the noble interest of ending deadly conflict. Conflict managers point to two different approaches to negotiations aimed at addressing conflict. The incrementalist “salami slicing” approach envisions what O’Hanlon is proposing, a series of small, good enough for now, steps that are envisioned as being stepping stones upon which the next set of compromises can be built, all in the interest of conflict resolution, or even conflict transformation. In contrast, the “boulder in the road” approach focuses on the biggest point of contention in a conflict, on the theory that if that can be removed, then all of the smaller ancillary conflicts can be more easily (and permanently) resolved.
After years of idealistic thinking (including by me) of the transformative power of incrementalism, it is reasonable to question the staying power of the boulders. In Bosnia, the boulder is the country’s post-war constitutional structure, which was a concession to the myth promoted by warring nationalists that Bosnia had no historical legitimacy as a sovereign space occupied for centuries by a diverse population, instead enshrining and legitimizing wartime territorial gains while laying the basis for a hobbled and ethnically partitioned state. Numerous observers (including some who were involved at Dayton) have noted that they never expected this constitutional situation to last for so long; it was presumed to be an interim step.
In Ukraine, the boulder is Putin’s belief that the country should not exist as a sovereign state capable of its own decisions, but that it is obliged to be subject to the whims of its larger Russian neighbor. And in fact, the hobbled-state outcome that could be facilitated by incrementalism would achieve what he wanted: a Frankenstein of bad peacemaking practice that would see Moscow directly engaged in the east, and yet able to exert influence over Kyiv through various schemes designed to appear like democratic (con)federalism, but are in fact intended to limit Kyiv’s sovereignty.
It would be the latest example of a new form of “frozen conflict” in areas seen by Moscow to exist “on the periphery.” The original frozen conflicts emerged after the demise of the Soviet Union, in places like Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. Yet, now the descriptor “frozen” is misleading, suggesting something that might be naturally thawed. Instead, in the Balkans the “frozen” status seamlessly morphed into an intentionally sustained political conflict that can be easily exploited by domestic and external bad actors seeking to foment just enough instability to prevent reform, and to maintain the geopolitical ambiguity that Moscow desires.
Some might like to think Ukraine is different, or that the people of Bosnia are somehow to blame for the examples of failed peace implementation noted above. This would be a misreading of the situation. In Bosnia, there has been a shockingly low number of incidents of politically-motivated violence since the war; that suggests that, like during the war, the violence or threats of violence that do occur are opportunistically catalyzed from the top-down. The structure of the peace deal – and its various interim elements – embedded the seeds for intentional polarization and dysfunction, which, following a quarter century, has now resulted in a generation of citizens that has grown up never having lived in a functional country. The protracted acquiescence to spoiler politics has cemented both divisions and dysfunction, with social divisions becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Precedent that Military Force by Nuclear Nations Can Change Borders
In Ukraine, Russia will “succeed” in holding territory it has seized only by expelling Ukrainians and anti-Moscow Russians, a reality that supports realpolitik voices like Henry Kissinger who argue that Putin & Co. should just be able to keep what they took. Of course, this also would establish the precedent that military force by nuclear nations can change borders – a precedent seen by many as bad, particularly people living in Taiwan, for example. The urge to avoid this acquiescence, however, should not be used as an excuse for the softer acquiescence that O’Hanlon and others describe. Such a precedent would be equally destabilizing.
Interim agreements unfortunately provide too many opportunities for spoilers who were never interested in peace in the first place to simply pursue their divisive aims by other means — often with Western moral and financial support. Leaders in the United States and Europe need to find a way to communicate to their own populations that there are no easy, short-term solutions, a message that in itself is hard to swallow at a time when the notion of sacrifice for ideals can seem laughably passe. In the United States, Democrats and Republicans have been uncharacteristically aligned on the matter of Ukraine. However, isolationists from the left and the right will become more vocal. In Europe, divisive voices will similarly challenge the foreign policy unity seen to date.
One way that the war in Ukraine could be framed to voters in democratic states in a more accessible way is by more clearly explaining the links between autocracy, kleptocracy, corruption, and democratic decline. A sense of injustice and stolen dignity has played a role in the election of authoritarian populists in the west, including Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, as aggrieved voters who felt they lost out in the economic whirlwind of the past decades voted for something different than the status quo. And even voters who aren’t following the war in Ukraine are now at least familiar with the term “Russian oligarch” – with the most disillusioned wondering if their own privileged financial and political elites are any different. In the paper “An Offshore Cold War: Forging a Democratic Alliance to Combat Transnational Kleptocracy,” published shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, Oliver Bullough wrote about the toxic global implications of western countries facilitating the extraction and laundering of kleptocratic gains. He wrote, “If U.S. policymakers adopt a strategic opposition to kleptocracy with the same zeal that characterized their anticommunism, they may face a little mockery from smug Europeans. But they will also reinvigorate the concept of the West and show its values are worth fighting for, and Europeans will join them in their struggle.”
Pessimists would likely note the old adage “turkeys don’t vote for Thanksgiving,” doubting the ability to take on anti-democratic global financial practices. However, forward-looking politicians should reconsider and see that strategically linking domestic and foreign policy through economic arguments that are grounded in the popular sense that the financial changes of the past generation were unjust, unfair, and bad for local democracy would resonate with voters. This is an opportunity to highlight the inter-linked nature of global democratic solidarity, and to demonstrate that the democratic community of countries is always stronger when the individual democracies are stronger, and weaker when the quality of democratic governance disintegrates.
This will not be easy; it is far easier for politicians to rail against the price of gas. But the aggression against Ukraine will continue to have a negative impact on the global political and economic environment, whether populations in the west are tired of it or not. Appeasement disguised as incrementalism will not work or make the world more secure. Unless spoilers are fully marginalized and governance systems put into place that allow for the rule of law, human rights, and accountable democracy, interim peace deals are no more than a win for the aggressor.