Why Ukraine should not accept Bosnia-style peace

The Dayton Accords made Bosnia a dysfunctional state. Ukraine should resist pressure for a similar flawed peace deal.

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 1995. file photo, a line of Bosnian government troops makes its way to the front-line near Mrkonjic Grad 120kms (80mls) north west of Sarajevo, Bosnia. While it brought an end to the fighting, the Dayton peace agreement baked in the ethnic divisions, establishing a complicated and fragmented state structure with two semi-autonomous entities, Serb-run Republika Srpska and a Federation shared by Bosniak and Croats, linked by weak joint institutions. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, File)
A line of Bosnian government troops makes its way to the front-line near Mrkonjić Grad, 180kms northwest of Sarajevo on September 28, 1995 [File: AP/Darko Bandic]

Over the past few months, Ukraine has managed to prove many of its critics wrong by launching a counteroffensive and regaining large swathes of its territory from Russia. But Ukrainian military successes and a Russian retreat have not been enough to persuade Kyiv’s Western allies to ramp up support. Instead, there has been some pressure on the Ukrainian government to engage the Kremlin.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, in particular, has pushed for diplomacy, insisting that Ukraine cannot liberate the rest of its territories. Other members of President Joe Biden’s administration have not publicly backed his calls for talks, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has felt pressed to signal openness to negotiations.

As a Bosnian watching this unfold, I hear alarm bells going off. Ukraine, I feel, may be heading towards Bosnia’s fate – a state made dysfunctional by a deeply flawed peace deal.

Of course, we cannot draw a full parallel between Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina. When my country was attacked in 1992, the United Nations imposed an arms embargo that curtailed its ability to defend itself. It lost a lot of territory to the enemy and could not stop a genocide.

The European Community, the predecessor of the European Union, and the UN dispatched diplomats who pursued a policy of partition cloaked in the language of peace. “Don’t dream dreams,” British mediator David Owen told the Bosnians in a rare moment of candour as they hoped for a Western military intervention.

By contrast, Ukraine has enjoyed both diplomatic and military support since Russia’s full-scale invasion. The supply of weapons in particular has not only allowed Kyiv to thwart Russian plans for a full occupation of the country but also to launch a successful counteroffensive.

But just as the Bosnian ​government forces were on the offensive ​in the summer and fall of 1995, when they were stopped by Western pressure for peace negotiations, the Ukrainians are also inexplicably being told to lay down their arms at a time when they have an advantage on the battlefield.

In Bosnia’s case, what this untimely push for negotiations did was put Sarajevo in a weaker position. It did not allow its forces to liberate more territory and gave Serbia ​and Serb rebel forces much more leverage in talks than ​they should have had.

With Russia still holding most of the Donbas region and parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia, Ukraine may find itself in the same situation.

If Western pressure continues, Zelenskyy would be faced with the difficult choice Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic was given by Richard Holbrooke, a US diplomat and chief negotiator at the 1995 Dayton peace talks.

“Do you want us to negotiate a single Bosnian state, which would necessarily have a relatively weak central government, or would you prefer to let Bosnia be divided, leaving you in firm control of a much smaller country?” Holbrooke asked Izetbegovic.

The Bosnian president opted to maintain the country’s territorial integrity. However, to reintegrate the Serb rebels, a key concession was the establishment of a highly autonomous political entity called Republika Srpska, which was given veto powers in the Bosnian government.

As a result, forces hostile to Bosnia’s unity were given the ability to block any executive or legislative move by Bosnian state​ institutions. Anything – from the Bosnian parliament meeting and legislat​ion being approved to elections being held – may be blocked at any time by these forces.

These veto powers essentially mean that the functioning of the country and its stability can be undermined by secessionists, who are increasingly stoking a conflict.

If Zelenskyy were to agree to peace talks now, he would be presented with a similar choice: giving up Ukrainian territory to Russia or accepting the formation of autonomous regions loyal to the Kremlin.

The Ukrainian president has promised to liberate occupied territories, including Crimea. If he compromises on Ukrainian territorial integrity, this would undermine his standing at home and weaken the morale of his forces. It would also make all of Ukraine’s internationally recognised territory negotiable – not just the portions Russia now occupies. Thus, there would never be a guarantee that the country would be safe from future invasions or territorial claims.

If Zelenskyy ​​were forced to allow autonomy in the east, he would risk overseeing the establishment of a Republika Srpska-type entity. This would effectively give pro-Russian rebels a say in the governance of Ukraine, likely through veto powers akin to those of Republika Srpska, which would render the country dysfunctional like Bosnia has been. This would not only upend the development of the country but also block its integration into the EU and NATO.

Ukraine can learn from the Bosnian experience so it does not make the same mistakes.

It should resist pressure to enter into early peace talks. Its PR and lobby apparatus is already doing great work and should continue to do so. But the best PR and antidote to the war fatigue already settling in on Western societies are military success – as the summer offensive has demonstrated.

Ukraine needs to step up its efforts to change facts on the ground. While full liberation through fighting may not be attainable, achieving a large and convincing enough victory against the Russian occupiers would give it much stronger leverage to demand Russia’s full withdrawal and to protect its territorial integrity. ​

At the negotiating table, the military situation on the ground is the most important factor shaping a peace settlement. In Bosnia’s case, it determined the borders of Republika Srpska and allowed it to reign over territories that had been ethnically cleansed of Bosniak Muslims. Kyiv and the West must not allow this to happen in Ukraine.

A flawed peace rendered my country deeply dysfunctional and undermined its security and development. This has been readily exploited by Russia, which has gained a local client, in the form of Republika Srpska’s leadership, and is able to undermine stability in the Balkans and Europe as a whole. Zelenskyy would do well to remind his Western partners of this precedent and urge them not to make unreasonable demands for early peace talks.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.