By Michael Cottakis, 89 Initiative Director
Beware the Bosnification of Ukraine
This week saw a shift in Russian tone. Having earlier promised to ‘de-militarise’ and ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine, Kremlin spokespeople now imply a narrower objective – the pacification of the Donbas. In many quarters, this news has been met with optimism and relief. Some suggest the real threat to Europe has passed, but this conclusion is a dangerous one.
Putin has not, as some claim, been defeated in Ukraine. Swathes of the country are occupied, with Russian forces apparently secure in the south. The images, beaming around social media, of new trenches and defensive constructions suggest we should indeed expect a different pattern, though not a preferable one. Unable to swiftly defeat Ukrainian resistance, Putin, it seems, is now planning for a war of attrition.
For Putin, attrition serves a double purpose. For one, it allows him to regroup, redraw his alliances, and restructure his war economy. In the short-term, he may ‘dig in’ around the Donbas. Later, reinforced and re-equiped, he could renew his offensives into northern or central regions. He may calculate that a war of attrition will weaken Ukrainian resistance, softening the ground for a future assault.
Yet more importantly, it allows Putin to divert western attention from events on the ground. While the passionate response in the west to the Ukraine invasion has been extraordinary, Putin will reckon, not unreasonably, that this reaction may be fleeting. It is a reckoning grounded in historical precedent.
Putin will look, with especial interest, to the Bosnian War (1992-95) which, following a period of initial interest, the west became tragically numb to. Massacres and genocide occurred largely under the radar of western public opinion as a low grade conflict rumbled on. Humanitarian and military support proceeded in drips and drabs but did little to prevent the 100,000 or so deaths. Eventually, western intervention brought the warring sides to heel. But the wear and tear of war left Bosnia and its neighbours destroyed – their rebound potential shot. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a weak state with no prospect of EU membership.
This latter point will not be lost on Putin who fears, above all, a Ukraine flourishing as part of the EU. He will do everything to ‘Bosnify’ Ukraine – to divert western attention from it, before grinding the country to a pulp. Free from the western media spotlight, he will become quietly, slowly, destructive. His ultimate aim is to leave Ukraine a shell, one with no realistic EU perspective and which the Kremlin can control and eventually subjugate.
The 2022 events are larger both in scale, and in geopolitical importance, than those of the 1990s. Public and political focus will be harder to shift. But in a social media age of alarmlingly short attention spans, the risk we become numb is a real one. This tendency for apathy, Putin knows well. He will reckon on it and wait.
Western leaders must thus consider their strategy for the coming months. What happens when domestic matters take precedence over Ukraine? Or when the frantic novelty of a war on European soil becomes normality? Media coverage may be punctuated by the one off atrocity, or the rare political development, but how do leaders respond when the coverage dries up? And what do they do when public opinion, fickle as ever, naturally refocuses – when the rallies thin and the blue-and-yellow flags are stored away?
Any refocus of public or media attention cannot dim the fervour with which western leaders oppose Putin’s War. Throughout the coming war of attrition, the noose around the Kremlin must continue to be tightened. Sanctions and embargoes must leave no space for the preservation of the Russian war economy. Efforts to arm Ukraine must proceed, and NATO must accelerate the build up of defensive forces on the eastern border. A credible plan for reconstruction must be determined from today. The west must do all it can to prevent the ‘Bosnification’ of Ukraine.
This series comments weekly on developments in the War in Ukraine as they occur, discussing the main patterns and their implications for the conflict and for the politics of Europe and the wider world.