March 23, 2023

In recent months, Ukraine has managed to prove many of its critics wrong by launching a counter-offensive and reclaiming large parts of its territory from Russia. But Ukrainian military successes and a Russian withdrawal were not enough to convince Kiev’s western allies to step up their support. Instead, there has been some pressure on the Ukrainian government to involve the Kremlin.

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

As a Bosnian I watch this unfold, I hear alarm bells ringing. I feel that Ukraine is heading towards the fate of Bosnia – a state rendered 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 limited its ability to defend itself. It lost a lot of territory to the enemy and could not stop a genocide.

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

In contrast, since Russia’s large-scale invasion, Ukraine has enjoyed both diplomatic and military support. In particular, the supply of weapons enabled Kiev not only to thwart Russian plans for a full occupation of the country, but also to launch a successful counter-offensive.

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But just like the Bosnian government troops were on the attack In the summer and fall of 1995, when they were held back by Western pressure for peace negotiations, the Ukrainians were also inexplicably told to lay down their arms at a time when they have an advantage on the battlefield.

In the case of Bosnia, this untimely negotiating push left Sarajevo in a weaker position. It did not allow his troops to liberate more territory and gave the Serbian and Serb rebels much more influence in the 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 face the difficult choice faced by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic from Richard Holbrooke, a US diplomat and chief negotiator during 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 rather have Bosnia divided so that you have firm control over a much smaller country?” Holbrooke asked Izetbegovic.

The Bosnian president chose to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. However, to reintegrate the Serb rebels, an important concession was the creation of a highly autonomous political entity called Republika Srpska, which was given veto power in the Bosnian government.

As a result, forces hostile to Bosnia’s unity were given the opportunity to block any executive or legislative move by Bosnian state institutions. Everything – from the Bosnian parliament assembly and legislation approved for elections to be held – can be blocked at any time by these forces.

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

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

The Ukrainian president has promised to liberate the occupied territories, including Crimea. If he compromises on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it would undermine his prestige at home and weaken the morale of his armed forces. It would also make all of Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory negotiable — not just the parts that Russia now occupies. So there would never be any 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 creation of a Republika Srpska-type entity. This would effectively give pro-Russian rebels a say in the administration of Ukraine, probably through veto powers similar to those of Republika Srpska, rendering the country dysfunctional, as Bosnia has been. This would not only hamper the development of the country, but also hamper integration into the EU and NATO.

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

It must resist pressure to begin peace talks soon. The PR and lobbying apparatus is already doing a great job and should continue to do so. But the best PR and antidote to the war-weariness already afflicting Western societies is military success – as the summer offensive has shown.

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Ukraine needs to step up its efforts to change the facts on the ground. While complete liberation through combat may not be achievable, winning a major and sufficiently convincing victory over the Russian occupiers would give it much stronger leverage to demand Russia’s complete withdrawal and protect its territorial integrity.​

At the negotiating table, the military situation on the ground is the most important factor in shaping a peace settlement. In the case of Bosnia, it defined the borders of Republika Srpska and allowed it to rule over areas ethnically cleansed of Bosnian Muslims. Kiev and the West must not allow this to happen in Ukraine.

A flawed peace left my country deeply dysfunctional and undermined its security and development. This is easily exploited by Russia, which has gained a local client, in the form of the leadership of Republika Srpska, and is able to undermine stability in the Balkans and in Europe as a whole. Zelensky 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 those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.