The Yugoslav wars: lessons for Ukraine

My former student Matthew Parish, an expert on the conflict in Yugoslavia, points out the parallels in a very good article. Does the West’s intervention in the Yugoslav civil war provide a basis for a more muscular intervention in Ukraine, or the opposite? That intervention, though late and halfhearted, ultimately restored peace, but it also exacerbated conflict in the short term and may have planted the seeds for further conflict in the long term. Bottom line:

Proxy wars are a common cause of ethnic conflict. Serbia stoked foment in Bosnia and Croatia, as part of a vision for an enlarged Serbia-dominated territory. Russia is intervening by proxy in Ukraine, through support for the militia of a so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk. … The suffering caused by proxy state aggravation of ethnic hostility is immense. Nevertheless the international policymaker must be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved through intervention. Ethnic hostilities, whether between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, Russians and Ukrainians, or Sunni and Shi’a, once evoked become phenomenally hard to quell. In time the inter-ethnic violence they engender precipitates permanent political changes. Hand-wringing and ineffective western foreign policy instruments, such as sanctions and diplomatic isolation, matter little when weighed against the strategic goals mandated by the Realpolitik of the countries with real interests in the dispute.

This, at its heart, is the most compelling argument against western humanitarian intervention. Humanitarianism is a laudable motive, but no substitute for raw strategic interests. Absent genuine geopolitical interest in another country’s conflicts, the West should stay out of others’ civil wars lest it risks exacerbating them and contributing to chaos through elicitation of false hopes. This may be the most important lesson from the Balkan wars of the 1990s for the ethnic conflicts and civil wars infecting the world in 2014.