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History Repeating Itself?

By Anne Eberhardt, Senior Director

Published April 5, 2022

Thirty years ago, an army of ethnic Serbs, backed by Slobodan Milošević’s Belgrade-based government, began what would become a 1,400-day siege of Sarajevo. The current images of smoldering Brutalist buildings in Ukraine cannot help but evoke the strong emotions of last generation’s Balkan horror show.

Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait a couple of years earlier, Western leaders had responded with economic sanctions to encourage Iraq to withdraw. As then-president Bush declared, “This aggression will not stand.” When the Bosnian conflict erupted in 1992, the U.N. responded by slapping Yugoslavia with economic sanctions.

Economic sanctions have become one of the most important weapons the international community wields to target badly-behaved regimes. The hope is that by preventing economic transactions from being conducted in the global markets, authoritarian regimes will collapse and be replaced by kinder, gentler governments.

Inspired by the intervention in Bosnia that ended the bloodshed, a younger, more idealistic version of myself worked with several U.S. government-funded projects created to aid the development of civil society in Ukraine, the Balkans, and Iraq.

As I learned, sanctions almost always lead to the peaceful transition of power. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević voluntarily relinquished power to their Ivy League-educated successors, who, along with their counterparts in Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Iran, have brought enlightened democracy, peace, and prosperity to their grateful populations.

Oh wait. Maybe that was the ending to a Hollywood movie I once saw.

The hard truth is that economic sanctions in Iraq and Yugoslavia were followed by the enforcement of “no-fly zones.” And neither leader was dislodged from office until overwhelming displays of U.S. firepower forced them out.

The images from Ukraine are heart-wrenching. In response, the community of polite nations has imposed on Russia some of The. Most. Fearsome. Sanctions. Of. All. Time.

And hooray, if they persuade Russia to leave Ukraine.

But there are signs that Russia may be able to evade Western sanctions. And if sanctions fail, what’s next? A no-fly zone? Followed by shock and awe? That kind of escalation with a nuclear-armed superpower was once unthinkable.

A century ago, a gunshot in Sarajevo launched the most cataclysmic war the world had then known. After its conclusion, none of the leaders who led their nations into it could point to a compelling enough reason to justify the horrors they had unleashed.

The older, but possibly wiser grandmother I have become, hopes that our current leaders will find more creative solutions, as well as the courage, to just say no to escalating violence.