ukraine-flag

Crimea & Yugoslavia? An Interview with Dr. Josip Glaurdic

Josip Glaurdic is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies and a fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge. His 2011 text The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia is a groundbreaking analysis of the diplomatic policy debates that took place in Western capitals from 1987 to 1992 and shaped the international community’s response to the dissolution of the country. No other text, before or after, has so thoroughly chronicled the decisions made and not, in Washington, London, Bonn, and Belgrade in what was the most significant geopolitical crisis of the time.

As comparisons to Yugoslavia are being actively drawn in the ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea, I decided to talk with Dr. Glaurdic to get a sense of whether the similarities between the two scenarios are more than rhetorical and what, if anything, the international community should recall from the Yugoslav experience as it searches for a coherent policy response.

Parallels are being eagerly drawn between the situations in Crimea and what occurred in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) during the 1990s by a number of commentators. Their views don’t entirely line up with one another, at least if we’re to consider this piece from Moscow-funded Russia Today as part of the debate. Is there actually a comparison to be made between Belgrade’s policy towards the western Yugoslav republics in the 1990s and Moscow’s occupation of Crimea?

I actually don’t have a problem – as a historian or social scientist – with the first two articles you are referring to. There is no point engaging with the third article from RT, because it is simply a waste of time to give attention to something so fundamentally out of touch with reality. 

Ian Traynor has identified rather well the modus operandi of the Putin regime, which seems so similar to what the Milosevic regime was doing in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. The similarities are indeed uncanny. It is almost as if there was some old Soviet manual for preparing such operations that both Putin and Milosevic were reading from. Ivan Krastev’s view of what Kremlin ideally wants – to turn Ukraine into a “Greater Bosnia”, i.e. a divided country where it would have strong influence over one half of it – fits into Traynor’s identification of the three possible scenarios and I think they’re both spot on. That is exactly what Putin wants – barring a complete victory and a change of regime in Kiev, which is not likely to happen. The only thing that I would add – when it comes to comparisons of the Putin and Milosevic regimes – is that Putin seems to be enjoying his status vis-à-vis the West, just as Milosevic did. From Milosevic’s personal communications we know that he loved – on a deeply personal level – giving the West so much trouble. It fed his ego. And it seems Putin relishes this opportunity as well. Even though – it must be said – he made a series of strategic mistakes during this whole ordeal.

What I find more troubling, and what neither one of the articles you referred to recognize, is that the responses of the Western powers have remarkable similarities to their responses to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s – beyond merely the shuttle diplomacy and the infamous “EU troikas”. We all understand the limitations of Europe’s decision making, foreign policy, and military capabilities – but the response thus far has been really weak indeed. Western leaders continue to claim that Ukraine is sovereign on all of its territory, but everything they have done (and not done) suggests they have accepted that Crimea is de facto lost. They seem to be hoping for a Georgian scenario as the best possible option here. Considering the economic tools at their disposal – that is simply short-sighted. Not only because it is signalling to a particularly vicious regime that it can act with impunity. But also because it is signalling to the newly integrated Eastern half of Europe that its fears and policy preferences are just not valid enough to push the EU in a particular direction. And that is not only short-sighted. It is destructive for the European project on the most fundamental level. It might have been possible to quarantine the Yugoslav crisis, but it won’t be possible to quarantine Ukraine. 

Media and propaganda are already a huge part of this struggle between Ukraine and Russia. This short op-ed by Victor Ostapchuk struck me as relevant given the attempt(s) by pro-Russian analysts to justify Moscow’s actions on the basis of some supposed historical entitlement to the territory. Historical revisionism played a large role in the Yugoslav wars also. On the other hand, many people in West are not very familiar with the history of (the former) Yugoslavia or Ukraine, so these simple narratives seem plausible to them. How should one respond to such revisionist accounts?

There can be only one way to respond – write more and write based on solid historical scholarship. I am all for keeping an open mind, for not trusting any sort of “official” lines when it comes to history – but there have to be limitations to our cynicism. Not all historical narratives are created equal. I understand that it is very difficult for the publics in Western democracies to properly judge the comparative value of these different narratives – especially after we have been so royally misled by our governments on enormously important matters of war and peace in this century – but that is all the more reason why sensible and unbiased scholars must not stand on the sidelines when crises like this happen.

That said, I must say that I cringe every time someone tries to justify a particularly unpalatable policy move – such as this imperialist invasion of Crimea – with an argument of some sort of “historical right”. It is no wonder that Henry Kissinger – the reigning prince of Realpolitik – has done exactly that in his recent editorial in the Washington Post. I can almost hear him doing the same thing back in the early 1990s. Just that then Serbs had a historical right to Bosnia, or to Krajina, or to Kosovo. Putin could just as well have said: “We feel a deep historical and spiritual connection with Ukraine, so we want to build relations based on mutual trust, friendship and common interests. Since Ukraine also feels a deep connection with its neighbours to the West, let it be a bridge between us and the rest of the continent.” That is also an argument built on “history”. How come this “historically” based policy did not even show up on the radar in the Kremlin?

The sad thing is that this sort of thinking is based on a poor understanding of what proper Realpolitik is – or rather, what any self-respecting Realpolitik strategist would do, faced with a problem such as this one, or the one in the early 1990s in former Yugoslavia. Here is a perfect quote, ironically from Henry Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation, explaining it: “Whenever peace – conceived as the avoidance of war – has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community.” The New York Times, in its recent editorial urged caution in Ukraine and stated that “a bully welcomes a slugfest”. I think that’s wrong. I think bullies prefer when others just give in.

The situation in Ukraine is changing rapidly. What should Washington and Brussels be doing, in your opinion?

I think it’s time for a serious reconsideration of Europe’s relations with Russia, where everything is going to be on the table. That includes our relations with Moscow when it comes to energy. Putin understands that his upper hand on this issue has a time stamp on it. Russia’s energy reserves are not infinite. It is time to bring that expiry date forward as much as possible and to make it clear to Moscow that this is indeed going to be the case. Moreover, Europe’s economic relations with Russia are not only energy-based. Serious sanctions could be implemented. Travel limitations could be instituted – not just for the organizers of the invasion, but for the members of the whole regime. Bank assets could be frozen. Ultimately, however, all of this is going to cost money and it will disproportionately hit Europe, which means the US will have to chip in to jointly carry the burden. Putin and his regime are counting on the West barking, but not biting. It is time to bite where it really hurts – and that is his wallet, which is full of money he syphoned out of Russia for himself and his cronies.

Does the Yugoslav experience tell us anything about what we might expect in the months (or years) to come in Crimea? What is important for the international community to avoid in moving forward with its diplomatic efforts?

I think we are likely to see the mix of the three scenarios Ian Traynor identified in The Guardian. The moves toward Crimean secession will continue. The situation in Eastern Ukraine will be critical, however, as both Moscow and Kiev will be fighting for the “hearts and minds” of the Ukrainians in those regions. Low-level conflicts and protests there are likely, with Moscow propagandists working full speed to turn the locals toward joining Crimea. One wrong move there by either side, one incident, could turn that area into the next setting of a major confrontation. It will be crucial for the Ukrainian government and military not to answer any provocations with violence. Just as it will be crucial for the West – EU and the US – to keep an active presence in the region and at the negotiating table. They will have to make a much more forceful stand against Moscow as I explained earlier. And they will have to hold firm, rather than releasing the pressure at the first sight of conciliation from the Kremlin. Slobodan Milosevic was extraordinarily skilful in fooling the Western diplomats and policy makers with his promises of cooperation and with his wrapping of aggressive policies into “rational” garbs. Putin must not be allowed to do the same.

 Also, the Western powers will have to financially prop up the new Ukrainian government and offer Ukraine further association. Moreover, I think they will have to breathe new life into the enlargement process in other areas where Russia’s presence has been very troubling – i.e. in Southeast Europe. The presence of a Soviet threat was a crucial factor in the unification of (Western) Europe during the Cold War. Right now it seems that the threat from Putin’s Russia is acting more as a factor of division within the EU. It will be up to the leaders throughout Europe – and in Washington – to make sure that is not the case. This past economic crisis has shown, however, that Europe is in desperate need of real leaders who are capable of recognizing the threats and opportunities this historical moment is presenting, and of moving the continent forward. So, I am not terribly optimistic that we will actually see the scenario I outlined put into place.

Interview by Jasmin Mujanović | @JasminMuj