Agreeing to end civil wars - reflections from the Balkans to Ukraine

Agreeing to end civil wars – reflections from the Balkans to Ukraine

If civil wars were not destined as a rule to yield uneasy but stable partition, then it is hard to see why they would be fought. The weaker side would simply capitulate and avoid the human suffering and mortal political risks. Civil wars matter, precisely because they result either in new territorial boundaries being created or in existing boundaries moving.

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By Matthew Parish

Few modern civil wars end with comprehensive victory or defeat for one side. Typically they result in a military stalemate, followed by an agreed truce of some kind or another. There is a reason why this might be so. Contemporary civil wars typically have an ethnic, linguistic or religious component to them. Different groups of people are pitted one against the other. The balance of power between them may be more or less fine. Otherwise the war would never have started, as one group or the other must have known it could never have won. War would have entailed that side’s destruction. Hence it would have done everything it could to avoid conflict.

Although they may not appear to begin as such, civil wars usually end up being about territory. The distinguishing characteristic of virtually every civil war is an ever-shifting territorial map of a previously peaceful country, the changing contours of which reveal the areas held by two or more armed groups. Comprehensive victory by one side over the other(s) is difficult in such circumstances, as people live in the territories described by these maps. Whenever one side takes over, civilians allied with the other groups flee. Absolute victory requires either that all the opposing people flee from everywhere, or that they die. Threats of this nature typically cause neighbouring states or regional powers to intervene if they come close to materialisation, either by reason of  the imperative to ameliorate humanitarian tragedy or the disruption caused by cross-border movements of refugees. Combatants in civil wars ultimately either grind themselves to a halt or are compelled by other states to desist. An agreed truce, found between the antagonists or forced upon them, becomes inevitable.

The civil war in Ukraine, now mostly concluded, exhibited all these characteristics. The war started with overthrow of a Russian-leaning government in Kiev by a European-leaning one. Those supporting the revolution presumably did not anticipate the strength of responsive Russian resolve. A line of territorial control moved forwards and backwards. As territory was annexed, people acquiesced in control by their new rulers or were expelled, or fled. Neither Ukrainians and those who supported them in the West, nor separatists in the Donbas and the Russians who supported them, were certain about how far the other would go.

The balance of power remained fine, but there was a constant concern that it might change at any time. Russia might push westwards, seizing territory to render annexed Crimea contiguous with Russia, or pushing even further towards Transnistria. The USA might send lethal support to the Ukrainian army, threatening military supplies and advisors: precisely the way the Vietnam War escalated uncontrollably. Despite these risks, eventually the parties came to their senses. The Cold War had prevented open conflict between US and Russian militaries for forty years, and nobody now wanted such a confrontation to be ignited in Ukraine some twenty-five years after the Cold War had ended. Under international pressure with France, Germany and Belarus mediating, and after a number of false starts, a peace agreement was reached in February 2015.

Although the Western press lamented the apparent success of Russian aggression, the conclusion to Ukraine’s civil war was not as abysmal an outcome as might be imagined. During the war, international rhetoric had become incendiary. Sanctions had destroyed valuable international economic connections. The Ukrainian Hryvnia had plunged in value, returning the country to developing world status. The price of oil had plummeted, entailing dark rumours about a Saudi-American conspiracy to damage Russia’s economy. The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk had seen extensive damage. Nevertheless the conflict had lasted less than a year: a moderate period by both historical and contemporary standards of civil wars. Although accurate figures are hard to come by, the death toll appears to have been in the region of 6,000 people in a country of 40 million. In the first nine months of the Bosnian war, perhaps 70,000 people died in a country of 4 million, and the conflict took over three and a half years to conclude. In Russia and Ukraine, political common sense and respect for the human costs of warfare prevailed relatively rapidly.

Minsk II, the peace conference at which an agreement to end Ukraine’s Civil War was forged, contained the usual fictions characteristic of peace agreements. Where one side has made territorial advances politically unpalatable to the other, the prevailing tactic is to compensate for the irremediable changes in military facts with a series of unenforceable aspirational assertions about territorial integrity and political compromise. Hence Ukraine’s eastern borders would be secured by the end of 2015, supposedly subject to control by Ukraine’s central government. A federal power-sharing arrangement would be enacted for the regions under Russian control. Miscellaneous promises were made about self-determination for the people of the region. None of these commitments are credible. The territory east of the ceasefire line is and will remain under the control of the Russian military and an administration loyal to Moscow. The notion that the Russian-Ukrainian borders in the east are or will be controlled by anyone other than Russian troops or those loyal to them is risible.

Debaltseve, the rail junction in eastern Ukraine connecting the Russian-controlled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, became a sacrificial icon indicative of the extent of Ukrainian powerlessness. According to the ceasefire map, the city was surrounded on three sides by Russian forces. The notion that it could survive indefinitely under Ukrainian government control was not credible. The Ukrainian President could not publicly admit Debaltseve was to be abandoned. The Russians then shelled the Ukrainian positions in the city in the aftermath of the Minsk II agreement until Ukrainian forces were compelled to leave. What parties to a ceasefire say they adhere to, and what really happens, are two separate things. The dominant party to a peace agreement is interested only in maps and boundaries. The weaker party aspires to the agreement’s other softer terms, but is reliant upon appeals to regional or global powers for their enforcement. Those terms may well be unenforceable even by a great power. It is unrealistic to enforce an obligation to wrest border posts between a breakaway region and victorious belligerent state, away from the control of the state that has been governing them before the peace was agreed, because the dominant troops remain in place.

There is much about the Minsk II agreement that reflects the Dayton Peace Accords ending the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In that instance, the only thing the parties imagined mattered in the course of the peace negotiations at Wright-Patterson Airforce Base in Dayton, Ohio were the borders to be drawn between the three warring parties. Commitments to a single constitution, state control of the borders, and other matters relating to the operation of the central government, were easily agreed because nobody expected them to be enforced. The conflict would be resolved by drawing lines of demarcation between the parties that would result in partition. This is also the reality of which the belligerent parties to the Ukrainian conflict are aware. It was the outcome of the frozen conflicts that succeeded the hot wars upon the demise of the Soviet Union, including in Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and it is surely the longterm outcome in Donbas as well.

The fate of Debaltseve also had an echo in the Dayton Peace Accords, in the city of Brcko – an ostensibly likewise modest town that served strategic importance due to its being a point of transit between two territorial components held by one of the protagonists. In Bosnia, Brcko connected the western and eastern parts of Republika Srpska and provided the only road connection between them. In Donbas, Debaltseve contains a rail junction that permits people – and military hardware – to travel across a region in which roads are poor and the only other railhead is via Rostov-na-Donu in Russia. In both wars, ostensibly irrelevant towns suddenly acquired strategic significance by reason of their locations on transport routes relative to the shifting military geography of the front lines in the war.

The ceasefire in Bosnia and Herzegovina held, and peace persisted. The principal reasons were pervasive international pressure in the early days (including US and European military occupation of the contested territories), and a realisation by most of the parties that there was relatively little to be gained by continued military conflict. Although, unlike the Bosnian war, the Ukrainian Civil War was not ended in circumstances of foreign military occupation, there are a number of similarities that suggest long-term peace is likely. The war has caused substantial economic damage to both belligerents. The threat of international military intervention by the United States caused Russia to recoil from further conflict at the critical moment. The Serbs’ error, by contrast, was not to recoil before that intervention became inevitable. The Russians were more prudent.

Moreover the tolerance of the Ukrainian population for civil war is more moderate than that of the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina who had more substantial ethnic and religious differences between them, and a far greater history of animosity, than do Russians and Ukrainians. Hence both sides risked losing the support of the Ukrainian populations in the war zone. It is difficult to fight civil wars without domestic civilian support or if people do not care. Perhaps more fundamentally, an awkward peace that divides Ukrainian territory is precisely what Russia wanted as an outcome of the war. In ensuring Ukraine descends into an extended period of frozen conflict, Russia precludes the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions such as NATO or the EU. The prospect of renewed civil conflict deters those institutions from embracing Ukraine further, as they are premised upon a democratic peace that can never be certain given Russian-backed occupation.

Hence while few of the principles contained in Ukraine’s peace agreement will be abided by, other than that of territorial division between the combatants, it is an agreement in which Russia has been largely victorious notwithstanding the substantial international pressure brought to bear upon her. The difference between what Russia might have taken without international impediment, and what she ultimately settled for, was a matter of degree only. Complete reabsorption of Ukrainian territory into Russia so as to reinstate the Soviet-era status quo of control of Kiev from Moscow was neither realistic nor the desired outcome on the part of Russia. Even with oil prices at a higher level, Moscow could hardly have afforded the perennial and massive subsidies required to sustain Ukraine. The burden of those subsidies now falls upon the European Union, which is better able to bear them.

Ukraine has all the governance and social problems of Russia, but without the natural resources advantages of her larger neighbour. The need for Russia to divest herself of her Ukrainian financial millstone was one of the principal motivations underlying the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding his rhetoric, Russia’s President was not about to repeat the errors of his own country’s recent history. In an age where most wars are cold or regionalised, territorial acquisition on its own is seldom a desirable goal unless there is some tangible financial or geopolitical advantage. Hence partition and settlement may be inevitable, notwithstanding the depth of grievances exacerbated through the course of bloody conflict.

If civil wars were not destined as a rule to yield uneasy but stable partition, then it is hard to see why they would be fought. The weaker side would simply capitulate and avoid the human suffering and mortal political risks. Civil wars matter, precisely because they result either in new territorial boundaries being created or in existing boundaries moving. These lessons might be recalled in assessing the likely prospects for peace in the Levant.

At the time of writing both Iraqi and Syrian civil conflicts have ground to a halt amidst uneasy territorial stalemate. Kurdish territorial autonomy within Iraq cannot easily be disturbed by the central government in Baghdad. Iranian-backed Shia dominance in Iraq’s capital is also affirmed. The Alawite regime in Damascus remains secure even after four years of fighting. Attempts by Iraq to dislodge the Sunni Islamic State regime are slow-going. The boundaries there have been redrawn, and notwithstanding all international exhortations it appears permanently so. These countries are ripe for an agreed peace; the only question is the diplomatic and political will in the international community to force the parties reluctantly to agree so. By contrast in Libya, Yemen and southern Somalia no credible lines of territorial division have so far been created, and hence the conflicts there will continue. International diplomatic efforts in those places will, for the time being, be wasted. Only where de facto boundaries emerge from civil war will armistices surely presently follow.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer. He was formerly the Chief Legal Advisor to the International Supervisor of Brcko in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is now the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group ( He has written two books and over a hundred articles on international law, international development and civil conflicts. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland.

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8 Responses

  1. Seems to me that a conflict driven by an outside superpower is not exactly a ‘civil war’. Or if it is partly a civil war, that is not the key feature of the situation. Russia’s explicit neo-colonial aggression in Ukraine alas completely ignored here.

    And no, Russia’s role here is not somehow equivalent to Serbia’s role in BH

  2. Thank you for this exquisite comparative analysis. From it I learned many new valuable social science concepts. Namely, that civil wars have destiny; that political risks are mortal; that there is a difference between new territorial boundaries being created and existing boundaries moving; and that there apparently is a measurement scale for determining population civil war tolerance. Which specific country in the Levant could this valuable methodological approach be used on?

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