Ukraine is teetering on the edge of civil war. Courageous public demonstrations in Kiev and sympathetic parliamentary actions have caused the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the capital. He has found sympathetic citizens, many of them armed, in the Eastern half of Ukraine and the Crimea. Russian influence is greatest in these regions. The Western half of Ukraine historically looks to Europe, and the present European Union in particular.


As the violence and political uncertainty in this strategically important country rise, the likelihood of warfare between East and West increases. Local leaders are already showing signs that they will exploit resentment of the people on the “other side” of the country’s divide to inspire more extreme and violent behavior. Ukraine echoes some of the dangerous dynamics seen in Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War. There are no simple saviors or clear solutions for a country pulling itself apart.


One historical lesson from Yugoslavia and other civil wars is that time is not on the side of peace. Conflict will escalate and spread if strong actions are not taken to stop the descent to civil war. In addition, the most extreme voices on both sides will gain influence if no one else fills the leadership vacuum created in Kiev after the president’s departure.


In Yugoslovia the United States deferred to its European partners when the civil war began. They proved incapable of taking effective action to stop what became a genocidal conflict. The same is true for the United Nations which often provided aid and cover to the most violent forces. Russia alternated between aiding its allies in the Yugoslav conflict, and pushing for international agreements that legitimized the most violent forms of ethnic cleansing.


The civil war in Yugoslavia only began to diminish after the United States became deeply involved, more than three years after the conflict began. Even then, American intervention had mixed results before the ultimate division of the country into separate ethnic states, and the arrest of numerous war criminals, especially Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. The United States was a late-comer to the conflict, and its influence was episodic and inconsistent.


In Ukraine we should expect similar difficulties, but the options for effective American and European influence will only decrease with time. The United States and the European Union need to formulate a joint strategy for early and decisive diplomatic actions to help bring stability, democracy, and firmer Western-orientation to Ukrainian politics. They need to work with their Russian counterparts, where possible, but also show a clear determination to contain Russian efforts at pulling Ukraine fully under Moscow’s control. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to exclude the European Union initiated the present crisis. We should not expect Putin to backdown anytime soon.


What actions should the United States and the European Union undertake? Leaders in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, London, and Paris should step forward with strong statements of support for a democratic political process that includes fair elections, a coalition government, and continued freedom for public demonstrations. They should formulate a package of economic aid and other forms of support that they will release to Ukraine when the political process produces a coalition government, following the now-scheduled May elections. The International Monetary Fund can help with promised loans as well. Most of all, the Western leaders should emphasize that they will focus attention on events in Ukraine, supporting freedom and stability, and condemning acts of repression and coercion, if they occur. Putin and other advocates of undemocratic politics should pay a public price for their actions.


These proposed solutions will not determine the outcome in Ukraine. That is up to the citizens on the ground, many of whom want to live a stable and democratic life as a part of Europe. What these actions can insure, however, is that American and European preferences are clear and unequivocal for everyone in the region. What these actions will also insure, is that powerful external actors are incentivizing democratic and cooperative behavior, rather than civil war.


American and European options are limited, but opportunities to support positive developments still exist. The experience in Yugoslavia at the end of the twentieth century should remind us that apathy and indecisiveness are dangerous. Targeted acts of support for democracy are crucial to curtail a rapid slide to civil war in Europe’s backyard.


This blog post originally appeared at


Successful leaders do not believe that they have the correct answers. They do not have set plans. Policy-making in a period of rapid change and multiplying uncertainties offers few clear paths forward. The role of leadership is to make sure diverse stakeholders are energized to explore the big questions: What kind of society do we want to live in? How can we grow while preserving the qualities that have made our society so livable and attractive?

The model for the leadership we need today is neither charismatic nor technocratic. Charismatic figures are eloquent and persuasive, but they encourage simple choices and polarized opinions. We have enough of that already. Technocratic leaders have detailed knowledge about key issues, but they have trouble seeing the connections that matter most for life, economy, and community. Too much obsession with the details can make inspiring change impossible.

The most successful cities in the United States are governed today by figures who see themselves as brokers with a vision. Urban officials must speak to different groups and take their interests seriously. They must manage diverse revenue flows from taxpaying families, local businesses, tourists, and state and federal agencies. They must also oversee complex spending flows through school districts, police and fire departments, municipal transportation units, housing agencies, and other services of last resort.

There are no consistent formulas for reconciling these different interests. The revenues and expenditures are often unpredictable, especially when the local economy is growing quickly but unevenly. City leaders must constantly adjust to bring different groups into balance, serving many masters and re-defining the common ground that addresses the broadest set of urban needs. This is the fundamental brokering function of  leaders—the core of all politics.

Vision, however, is essential to making urban politics serve a higher purpose. Successful cities have leaders who continually remind negotiating groups that they should work toward something larger than just their immediate interests. Skilled leaders do not dictate a vision, but they motivate stakeholders to see personal value in looking forward toward a larger image of what their city should be like, and what role they should play. A city is, after all, as much an idea as a reality. Urban groups must see themselves as part of something more than themselves—a community—and leaders must help them articulate this vision and its service to each stakeholder’s long-term goals.

No one person or group can impose a vision on another one, especially in a large and decentralized city like Austin. A common idea of what Austin is about must emerge from continual engagement among diverse stakeholders. The common idea will constantly evolve, building on a venerable past as it adjusts to the opportunities and demands of the present.

City leaders are not the dictators or even deciders for the governing vision of Austin. They are the facilitators of the process, insuring its depth, fairness, and representativeness. City leaders must keep the engine of the city running as they push citizens to steer together to a mutually beneficial destination. City leaders cannot presume to know the precise coordinates or the exact route for the destination. Their job is to ask, time and again: Where are we going? How will we get there? How can we keep everyone on board?


This blog post originally appeared at Leadership Austin:

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. In September 2011 he published a new book on the past and future of nation-building: Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.