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A Western-imposed peace deal in Ukraine risks feeding Russia’s hunger for land – as it did with Serbia

The fragility of peace settlements in the Balkans provides a cautionary tale. US and EU policymakers may inadvertently make matters worse by acceding to the aggressor’s territorial ambitions.

A woman with flowers walks past a building fortified with sandbags in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv, Ukraine. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The conflict in Ukraine will soon be heading into its third year with no sign of a ceasefire. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that many in the West are growing impatient with the emerged stalemate and reluctant to provide continued military support to Ukraine.

However, wars do come to an end, often with one side making concessions in exchange for peace. And over the course of the Ukraine war, influential voices in the West – be it those of the late Henry Kissinger, former President Donald Trump or high-ranking NATO official Stian Jenssen, to name a few – have raised the prospect of Ukraine having to cede land to Russia in exchange for peace.

As an expert on Western military interventions in transnational ethnic conflicts, I have seen how well-intentioned peace agreements offered to the perceived aggressor can inadvertently plant the seeds for renewed conflict. This is because such agreements can deliver in peace what the aggressor pursues in war: territory.

Rather than resolve the root cause of conflicts, this can reward revanchism – that is, a state’s policy to reclaim territory it once dominated – and embolden an aggressor to use war to achieve its aim. This is especially true when the West rewards aggression with generous peace agreements.

Take the former Yugoslavia.

It has been more than 20 years since the end of the Yugoslav wars, a series of conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. During these wars, Serbia sought to unify large swaths of territories populated by Serbs and non-Serbs into a “Greater Serbia.”

The wars ended with military victories for Slovenia and Croatia over Serbia, and NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the cases of the latter countries, NATO intervention was followed by numerous Western-imposed peace plans.

But two decades on, the region borders on renewed conflict as Serbia insists that its survival is dependent on it ability to solely represent and protect all Serbs, wherever they live.

Candles for three killed Serbs in the northern Serb-dominated part of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, Sept. 26, 2023.
AP Photo/Bojan Slavkovic

Of course, each war is different, and the circumstances surrounding the invasion of Ukraine are unique.

But I believe the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo show that Western-sponsored treaties, when they sacrifice land for peace, can store up trouble for later – especially when it comes to revanchist nations.

Russia and Serbia revanchism

Russian and Serbian revanchism has been evident ever since the countries they once dominated – the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, respectively – broke up in the early 1990s.

In 1992, Russia seized Transnistria, the Moscow-backed breakaway part of Moldova that borders southwestern Ukraine, under the pretext of securing peace. The same year, Russia intervened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, autonomous regions within Georgia populated by pro-Russia but non-Georgian peoples, to “end the ethnic fighting.” In 2008, Russia expanded further into Georgia. The same scenario recurred in 2014 when Russia sent forces to Crimea and the Donbas to “protect” ethnic Russians from “Nazi” hordes.

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia has similarly sought to reclaim its dominance of that region. It has done this under various pretexts. Serbia’s decadelong wars began in 1991 and included fighting in Slovenia purportedly to “keep Yugoslavia together”; in Croatia, it was to protect ethnic Serbs from the “fascist” regime; in Bosnia, Serbia claimed to be preventing the founding of an “Islamic state”; and in Kosovo, the stated aim was to fight “terrorists.”

Yet, a quarter of a century on – and despite hopes that the fall of former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 might usher in a more peaceful era – political elites in Serbia continue to pursue the unification of all Serb-populated lands, or at minimum gain the West’s acceptance of a “Serb world” – that is, a sphere of Serbian influence in Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro where Serbia dominates.

A Kosovo police officer guards a road near the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo.
AP Photo/Bojan Slavkovic

Walking the Balkan path

The various peace treaties meant to stabilize and bring lasting peace to Bosnia and Kosovo have, to various degrees, failed, due in no small part, I would argue, to the very terms of settlement.

In Bosnia, the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords of 1995 brought the Bosnian War to an end. But it also reorganized the state into two subnational units: the majority-ethnic Serbian Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The accords awarded 49% of the recently independent Bosnia’s territory to the Republic of Srpska despite Serbs constituting 31% of the general population and having committed genocide and ethnic cleansing in pursuit of crafting a Serb state within Bosnia.

Now, the Republic of Srpska seeks to secede and contravene the Dayton Accords through the establishment of parallel institutions and the withdrawal of its members from Western-brokered institutions.

In Kosovo, with each European Union-sponsored peace agreement to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo, security threats from Serbia escalate, as evidenced by a recent armed attack led by Milan Radoičiċ, an associate of Serbia’s president.

Meanwhile, what critics see as Western appeasement of Serbia’s revanchism has led to further concessions in regard to Kosovo. In contrast to Bosnia, the Kosovo model involves incremental appeasement through various peace agreements – the Ahtisaari Plan, Brussels 1 and 2 Agreement, Ohrid Agreement, and the Draft-Statute proposal. These plans offer political concessions to Serbia in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

The same fate for Ukraine?

To suggest that a similar fate to Bosnia or Kosovo may await Ukraine is not beyond the realms of reality.

Any such solution could be an off-ramp to war, but it would hand Vladimir Putin what he wants: control over Russian-speaking people and key strategic territory in Ukraine.

If the West follows either the Bosnia or Kosovo model for peace for Ukraine, the result would likely be the same: First, it would result in the reorganization of Ukraine into two political-administrative units, one under control of a pro-Western government in Kyiv, the other under the influence or direct control of Moscow. Second, it would see the promotion of complex political arrangements, such as ethnic veto powers, dual sovereignty and international representation, that yield institutional dysfunction and political instability. And third, there would be no robust security deployments or guarantees from the U.S. or NATO to deter future Russian aggression.

From Kosovo to Kyiv

The current Western support for Ukraine’s defense will likely lead to its heavy involvement in any peace negotiations.

But ultimately, the implications of a Western-imposed peace in Ukraine may, if the past is any indicator, do little to appease Russian revanchism and may, in fact, encourage Russian elites to pursue a similar policy in Estonia and Latvia – states where Russians make up a quarter of the population.

The West may hope that a plan based on land for peace helps Ukraine by stopping the bloodshed, while at the same time appeases Russia and solves a geopolitical problem for the EU and the U.S.

But if the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo are anything to go by, it could on the contrary only whet Russia’s appetite for more territorial claims, and leave Ukraine feeling betrayed.

Drita Perezic, a security sector expert with the Balkans Policy Research Group, contributed to this article

Elis Vllasi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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