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A nation must think before it acts.
The Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed worries that the country will use its proxies in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to open a second front against the West in the Western Balkans. Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, has well noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin “said right from the start that this is not only about Ukraine.” Indeed, the present conflict proceeds from Putin’s grander geopolitical designs to counteract the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) influence in Eastern Europe. European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell concurs, ominously warning, “Russia is not going to stop in Ukraine.” Echoing the predictions of many Western officials, Borrell expressed concern for Russia’s neighboring countries, such Moldova and Georgia, as well as the countries of the Western Balkans, “particularly Bosnia, which could face destabilization by Russia.”
In addition to the vulnerability shared by many Eastern European countries that are not a part of NATO or the EU, there are a number of specific political and social factors that put Bosnia particularly at risk of Russian interference and aggression. The country’s fractured political and institutional landscape—a product of the Bosnian War from 1992-1995 and the structural provisions of the resultant Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA)—provide fertile soil for Russian interference. Veto mechanisms built into the DPA have most recently been used by pro-Russian parties in the BiH Parliament to prevent the adoption of sanctions against Russia.
BiH is a microcosm of the so-called “civilizational conflict” that Putin imagines between Russia and the West. Its territory and administrative structure are cleaved in half. In the entity of the Republika Srpska (RS), the Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, against whom the West intervened to end their aggression against Bosniak Muslims in the 1990s, have cultural, historical, and ideological affinities for Russia. Most Serbs continue to oppose alignment with the West, relying on narratives of victimhood (not unlike Russia itself) from the 1990s and obstructing the broader efforts in the country toward Western integration.
Putin’s efforts to cooperate with Croatia and the Bosnian Croats, especially on changing the Bosnian election law, go hand-in-hand with EU-led negotiations on changing the key aspects of the law. Bosnian Croat leader, Dragan Covic, has publicly lamented that “there is not enough Russian influence in Bosnia,” whilst Croatia’s President Zoran Milanovic surprisingly opposes NATO membership for Ukraine, which he also called “one of the most corrupt countries on earth.” Russian diplomats have reciprocated nationalist Croat sympathies by fully endorsing Covic’s proposals for a new election law in Bosnia. Despite that, EU officials have done their best to pressure the Bosniak political representatives to agree to change the way that key officials are elected. The proposal tabled by the EU would give more value to the votes of Croats from areas of the country where the nationalist Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) governs. Civil society organizations and human rights activists have reacted very negatively to what European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) plaintiff Azra Zornic calls “a plan to reward nationalist agendas.”
This tug-of-war between antipodal ideologies and powers corresponds to Putin’s antagonistic worldview. With his mounting failures in Ukraine and Russia’s growing international isolation, it is conceivable that Putin would try to use his proxies the Western Balkans in the hope of destabilizing the region. Given the already unstable political conditions and after years of bolstering the RS security sector and promoting pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives, he is likely to consider BiH an ideal target for a victory that is both militarily expedient and symbolic. The Russian ambassador to Bosnia has increased the pressure recently by saying:
If [Bosnia and Herzegovina] decides to be a member of any alliance, that is an internal matter. Our response is a different matter. Ukraine’s example shows what we expect. Should there be any threat, we will respond.
The internal situation in BiH further complicates matters. The country’s majority Serb entity, RS, remains under the leadership of Milorad Dodik, one of Putin’s most devoted proxies. Dodik has repeatedly stated his intent to break up the Bosnian state through force, if necessary. To realize his irredentist ambitions, Dodik has spent much of his 16 years as de facto RS leader by building up the entity’s security and military capacities in direct violation of the Bosnian constitution. In this process, the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has been his most supportive ally.
An earlier report by the Foreign Policy Research Institute documented RS police and security forces receiving training and equipment distinctly similar to that of an army—with significant Russian support. In direct violation of the DPA, the RS Ministry of Interior has procured and paraded numerous military-grade weapons annually over the past several years. Additionally, the Russians have helped extremist organizations increase capacities for hybrid warfare. The Night Wolves are the most notable pro-Russian organization in the region, and they’ve made their presence known for almost a decade, including visits to Serbia by their leader, known as “The Surgeon,” who was a key figure in Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
Russia also exerts significant influence in Bosnian media. While Russia has long been a source of disinformation, a recent article in the NATO Review reports that since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian assault on the Balkan information space has become particularly intense, reflecting some of the very same rhetorical tropes with which the regime justifies its invasion of Ukraine. The NATO report identifies BiH as one of the countries most affected by Russian misinformation campaigns. The most common themes identified include “demonizing the United States and NATO,” “presenting the EU as weak and divided,” “advertising Russian military might,” and “amplifying threat perceptions, myths, and ethnic tensions.”
These narratives serve as the connective tissue between the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s designs on the Western Balkans. As noted, Putin’s war in Ukraine is a part of his broader geopolitical objective to oppose what he sees as Western hegemony through confrontation with the U.S., EU, NATO, and the existing international order more broadly. Within this ideological matrix, BiH stands out as a target due to its recent history as well as its current social and political climate.
Could Bosnia suffer the same aggression as Ukraine should BiH continue its attempt to join NATO? Western sanctions, including the grounding of Russia-owned airplanes, makes a deployment of Russian troops unlikely. However, the hybrid capacities of Russian proxies make Bosnia vulnerable to destabilization. After more than a decade of denying that the failure of its deterrence capabilities is creating a security vacuum in the country, the EU has admitted that there is a gap that needs to be filled by additional troops. In 2004, EU created a multinational stabilization force (EUFOR ALTHEA, a legal successor to SFOR), which became tasked with the implementation of Annex 1-A and Annex 2 of the DPA. EUFOR ALTHEA has since had the main peace stabilization role under the military aspects of the DPA. Experts have warned for over a decade that the present EUFOR posture constituted a deterrence gap. The EUFOR mission has recently improved with the arrival of 500 troops from four EU countries, three of which are also NATO members. A minimum of 5,000 is required for EUFOR’s mission to be successfully implemented—a long way from the current troop level of 1,100.
Instead of focusing on closing the security gap, the EU and U.S. have made a bizarre decision to focus on negotiations on the country’s election law—directly empowering Russia’s proxies in Bosnia who want the law changed to give more weight to the votes of their constituents. Considering Biden campaign’s repeated pledges that human rights and democracy will be central to his foreign policy and the use of his principled pro-Bosnia and anti-genocide positions from the 1990s to court Bosnian-American voters in key swing states, such as Iowa in 2020, it is surprising that the Biden administration would be supporting a de facto attempt to further divide Bosnia along ethnic lines.
The EU effectively gave up the possibility of sanctioning Bosnian Serb secessionist leader Milorad Dodik and his Bosnian Croat ally Dragan Covic by giving in to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s requests to change the voting requirements from weighted majority to unanimity on March 19, 2022.
It is high time for a change in Western policy in the region. Denying Putin the possibility to destabilize the Western Balkans can swiftly be achieved with two key steps that the West can take. First, by using the instruments provided to the West under the DPA, especially the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which can remove officials from office who are deemed to be preventing the implementation of the Agreement. Based on Annex 10, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) requested in 1997 “the High Representative to remove from office public officials who violate legal commitments and the Dayton Peace Agreement, and to impose laws as he sees fit if Bosnia and Herzegovina’s legislative bodies fail to do so.” Using the OHR’s powers to remove Dodik for violating the DPA would go a long way in sending the right message about Western resolve to protect the stability of the region. This would not be an unprecedented decision, as OHR has already removed over 100 officials who violated the constitutional order in the country. Peace in Bosnia was maintained for almost 27 years by a commitment of the West to the post-war order in the country, including the muscular use of enforcement mechanisms of the DPA. Now is not the time to be shy about using those.
Second, NATO should speed up the process of Bosnia’s membership accession. As there is a reasonable chance that—even if he is not removed by the OHR—Dodik will lose the October general election in Bosnia, NATO should be ready to use the next four-year period to accept Bosnia as member. Crucially, Bosnia is successfully implementing its NATO Membership Action Plan. Bosnian Armed Forces have demonstrated readiness and interoperability during the recent large bilateral exercises with the U.S. Army in Bosnia, which were a part of the Defender Europe 21 exercise. Hence, NATO membership is a realistic near-term possibility for Bosnia. Considering how reluctant the Russians are to attack NATO members, Bosnia would effectively be out of the range of Putin’s hybrid and proxy attacks and would cease to be the soft underbelly of the European security architecture.
Russia’s tragic war of aggression against Ukraine is a painful reminder that placating bullies is never a long-term solution. Acquiescing to the strong-arm tactics of Dodik and Covic is the same strategy the West hoped would satisfy Putin. Appeasement could end up helping malign actors destabilize Bosnia and the Balkans.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.