Harsh realities in Minsk

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The situation in Ukraine has echoes of the end of the Bosnian War, as Kyiv faces the dilemma of whether or not to accept a quasi-independent Donbas in the east.

The late Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who designed the Dayton Accords that brought the Bosnian war to an end, regretted not having pressured Slobodan Milosevic harder on key points during early negotiations, when the balance of power on the ground was finally swinging against Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs in the midst of NATO bombardments and Croatia’s Operation Storm. 

One of those points was the recognition of Republika Srpska, a Serbian pseudo-state carved out of the newly independent Bosnia on the back of ethnic cleansing by chetniks and other irregular forces with the support of the regime in Belgrade. Accepting the existence of this entity was a bitter pill to swallow for Sarajevo, which was still under siege, but the recognition of Republika Srpska became one of the Geneva Principles that paved the way to Dayton.

The binary of might and diplomacy, escalation and de-escalation, is not unbreakable

Although there are differences, Ukraine now faces a comparable scenario. All conflicts produce such dilemmas through the equations of diplomacy and might, realpolitik and its trade-offs, principles and their limits. In this crisis, two things are now crucial. Must Kyiv accept as a parameter for peace something that is a reality on the ground, the quasi-independent Donbas region, torn away from the rest of Ukraine through the (ab)use of force and violations of international principles? Should this be taken as a collateral loss in the struggle to achieve objectives such as financial stabilisation and the progressive integration of the rest of Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic sphere? Or should Kyiv continue to fight, so that the temporary truce and the current front line do not become the focus of permanent tension and of a definitive split, as has occurred in practically all of the “frozen” conflicts in the former Soviet space?  The second dilemma is for the West and, in particular, for key actors such as the United States and Germany. For them, the question is how to increase the pressure or the “costs” for Russia – through greater sanctions or, possibly, by supplying more arms to the battered Ukrainian army. 

The binary of might and diplomacy, escalation and de-escalation, is not unbreakable. One option would be some kind of international military intervention, similar to the one in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, to alter the balance of power in Kyiv’s favour and force a lasting diplomatic agreement. But this is impossible and undesirable right now. This scenario would entail a direct confrontation with Russia, precisely the self-fulfilling prophecy for which some paranoids in Moscow hope.

The Balkan peace model of force leading to diplomacy is not applicable: the external aggressor, today’s Russia, is not the old dismembered Yugoslavia of Milosevic, despite the similarities in terms of the use of propaganda, the flagrant denial of involvement against all evidence, and the support for irregular forces and militias, which the patron state then cynically represents in negotiations.

The Balkan peace model of force leading to diplomacy is not applicable: the external aggressor, today’s Russia, is not the old dismembered Yugoslavia of Milosevic

A lesser option for coercive diplomacy would be a moderate military escalation by arming Kyiv, as Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko requested at the Munich Security Conference and which the US and some of its European partners are considering. It is a legitimate request. However, in the best-case scenario, reinforcing Kyiv’s military capacity would perhaps help it prevent losing more territory – but the obvious temptation would be to try to recover lost territory too.

Basically, the arithmetic is implacable: Russia holds total sway over the escalation of force in Ukraine – and, indeed, in almost all of the former Soviet space. It is impossible to rule out even more aggressive moves from Russia, from a de facto consolidation of Novorossiya to its hinted threats about “Kyiv in two days”.

In this asymmetrical strategic battle, the harsh reality is that Russia, and especially Vladimir Putin – as Georgians, Chechens, Ukrainians and others can attest – keeps its promises when its vital interests are at stake. The West, meanwhile – as Syrians, Palestinians, Afghans and others know too well – does not enforce its red lines.

So, it should come as no surprise that the results of negotiations at Minsk constitute, at best, a Minsk redux, basically reframing the agreements of September, with new provisions on the security zone and lots of loopholes and ambiguity regarding local elections, constitutional reform, and, crucially, border control. This is just a short break from the key parties’ realisation of their strategic objectives, while the daunting burden of verifying key aspects (such as the ceasefire and military drawdown) and of monitoring (likely) breaches falls on the shoulders of overstretched, unarmed OSCE monitors, whose morale in the east is at a low ebb, instead of, as should be the case in a conflict situation, being the responsibility of an armed multinational peacekeeping force. There is naturally no consensus for such a military presence, neither in Kyiv nor in Moscow.

The harsh reality is that more Minsks and red lines will surely come and go. The next will not be over Donbas but perhaps an attempt to avert a de facto Novorossiya

The harsh reality is that more Minsks and red lines will surely come and go. The next will not be over Donbas but perhaps an attempt to avert a de facto Novorossiya (something that the rebels are close to bringing about and for which they will probably keep on pushing). Europeans and Americans have to strike an infernal balance between diplomacy and force, pushing European and transatlantic unity to their limits.

Precedents are a curse; they reproduce. Holbrooke and his team feared that Bosnia would become another Cyprus. Poroshenko is trying to prevent Donbas from becoming Transnistria. Realpolitik argues in favour both of accepting a new Transnistria for the time being, in order to save Ukraine’s European future, and of increasing the deterrent against Russia. But, in spite of Angela Merkel’s words in Munich, this time we might not be fortunate enough to see the Wall come down. And Western Europeans seem less likely than ever to accept a little suffering in the interests of European security, both for others and for ourselves.

This article was originally published in Spanish in El Mundo on 12 February 2015.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe, Western Balkans, EaP, Ukraine, Ukraine Crisis

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