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Plenary panel 3: The Crisis in Ukraine – Lessons (not) Learned from the Western Balkans

Plenary panel 3: The Crisis in Ukraine – Lessons (not) Learned from the Western Balkans

Could we have anticipated the Ukrainian conflict? A country nestled between two political blocks – one established and enlarged, the other still establishing (and enlarging?) – with deep internal divisions following a decade of intermittent political crises? Surely we should have been able. In the meantime, many scholars have pointed out numerous similarities between the Ukrainian conflict and the bloody break-up of former Yugoslavia. The methods of mobilizing public support for the protection one’s own ethnic groups are virtually identical in Russia today as they were in Serbia twenty years ago. Ethnic political parties, military and paramilitary forces and self-proclaimed autonomous regions and republics but also indecision and weakness in the reaction of the international community bring back memories from the nineties and fears that we are again helplessly watching the fall of another country. However, even when it repeats itself, history never does it in exactly the same way.

As Holmes and Krastev recently put it – the conflict in Ukraine is not a new Yugoslav conflict. It is much worse, and the reason can be found in the differences between these two conflicts. Putin’s Russia is not Milosevic’s Serbia. Russia is not a footnote in history or a Balkan mini-state; it is a great nuclear power, against which Ukraine, however heavily armed, does not stand a chance militarily. Moreover, the geopolitical context has changed considerably in the last two decades. At the time of the Yugoslav war, the West not only occupied the moral high ground, but was also viewed as invincible, thanks to its victory in the Cold War. Today, the West is perceived as declining, with the United States’ legitimacy as a global leader increasingly being called into question. Where does this bring us today and what are the lessons that we ought to have learned? Maybe one of the most important was to talk – not only when the crisis was at its peak but at the beginning, or better still, before it began. Only then would we have been able to say that we had learned something from previous conflicts and that we were ready to tackle our problems through strategic thinking and dialogue.

The next question that worries us is the future of Ukraine after the conflict. Will it suffer a similar fate to Yugoslavia? This would indeed be an extremely disappointing scenario; it would mean that we have learned absolutely nothing from the Yugoslav wars.


Discussion topics:

  1. Are there similarities between the situation in Ukraine and the fall of Yugoslavia?
  2. Do the events in Yugoslavia and Ukraine reflect the substitution of diplomacy with propaganda?
  3. What do the geopolitical flare‐ups in these two regions show about the European buffer zone?
  4. Is the Ukrainian crisis going to define the relations between the EU and Russia for decades to come?


Ted Whiteside‚ Acting Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, NATO

Andrei Zagorski‚ Head of Department for Disarmament, Arms Control and Conflict Resolution, Institute for World Economy and World Politics, Russian academy of Sciences; Professor, Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO-University)

Andriy Veselovsky‚ Member, Advisory Board, Institute for Social and Economic Studies

James Sherr‚ Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Chatham House

Chair: Vessela Tcherneva‚ Head of the Wider Europe program, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations