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Ukraine: the next Bosnia?

By Walter Zaryckyj - posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A critical issue for the G20 chairman in the drama unfolding in Ukraine is to decide whether Ukraine is a strategic linchpin or the next Bosnia.

First, without question, Ukraine is a global pivot point. It is the gateway to Europe, eternally on guard against moves from the east, whether the north (historically Muscovy), the centre (historically the Mongols) or the south (historically the Ottomans).

Second, the country is not naturally a Bosnia. Any serious review of reports from Ukraine since its independence in 1991 indicates that the one thing it has not suffered is ethnic violence. Third, precisely because Ukraine is a strategic linchpin, it could find itself transformed into a Bosnia artificially. Such an induced change might just fit the strategic purposes of a party needing Ukraine to pivot in its direction.


Finally, if such a transformation occurred - if Ukraine did become the new Bosnia - it would be more difficult to manage than the original; the repercussions for Europe and the world would be far greater.

One can advance three rock solid lines of argument about whether Ukraine is indeed a strategic linchpin: the geopolitical, the geo-economic and the geo-cultural. The geopolitical argument was best expressed more than a decade ago by an astute senior staff member on the US House of Representatives international affairs committee who said that members had been discussing the benefits of NAFTA-EU-Ukraine as a triangle.

Instead, he said, "We might want to consider its opposite to really understand what is at stake. Imagine a Ukraine-Russia-China triangle; Ukraine rockets to Russia. Ukrainian wheat to China. Ukrainian assistance to various rogue states and entities, who then could blame China and Russia for some unimaginable 'tragedy' that could immeasurably weaken the West."

The geo-economic argument is easily answered. When asked to name the five countries vital to feeding the world in this century, a top Wall Street expert named five: Argentina, Australia, Canada, the US and Ukraine. As for the geo-cultural argument, anyone remotely acquainted with the work the EU has done with the six member states of its Eastern Partnership initiative (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) will swear that Ukraine is the key to EP's central role finally making Europe "whole, free and at peace".

Could Ukraine be the "next Bosnia"? Students of the region would swear Ukraine does not contain any border areas that exhibit the kind of age-old ethnic animosities one might find among the ­country's neighbours - no Karabakhs, no Transdniesters, no South Ossetias or Abkhazias and for that matter no Chechnyas and Dagestans.

For a time in the early 1990s, US intelligence service saw Crimea as a potential frozen conflict zone but eventually discovered that a three-way ethnic split on the peninsula (the Ukrainians, the Tatars and ethnic Russians) would always lead to a classic Mexican standoff.


From the moment of Vladimir Putin's ascension to power in 2000, with his self-proclaimed mandate to restore "the greatness of Russia" and right the wrong of the "collapse of the USSR", and equally from the time of Bill Clinton's historic speech in 2000 in Kiev promoting Ukraine as a potential "strategic partner" for the US in particular and for the Euro-Atlantic community in general, a jostling by the two sides for Ukraine's ­attention began in earnest.

The West concentrated on the masses and talked about promoting genuine democracy or the rule of law, installing a mature market economy, enhancing general and energy security, increasing social-ethnic cohesion and creating an established yet tolerant national identity. Putin talked about managed democracy, the joys of kleptocracy, security and energy "interdependence", the strength of Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood and the benefits of a Eurasian identity.

The Ukrainian masses bought into one side, the UA elites bought into the other and a set of tussles ensued. By February 24-25, this year a firm decision had resulted. The masses managed to pull over the elites to their side or put in place a new elite beholden to them, and gave a definite nod to the West.

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 This is an edited text of a speech Walter Zaryckyj delivered last night at the Sydney Institute. It was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Walter Zaryckyj is executive director of the Centre for UK-Ukrainian Relations.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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