Russia’s New Front with the West in Bosnia

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018. Courtesy of / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The West needs to act now to prevent the disintegration of Bosnia and the opening of a new confrontation with Russia in the Balkans. NATO integration under a shortened procedure offers a solution.

As the shelling of cities in Ukraine continues and the number of victims increases, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has found time in his busy war schedule to hold a call with Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian presidency. The call was presented as the continuation of talks on the implementation of agreements reached in Moscow at a meeting between Dodik and Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2021.

Such a development signals Russia’s intention to expand its theatre of activity beyond Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. The West should act promptly before a new wave of Russian-led destructive activity hits the Balkans.

A Powder Keg in Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is experiencing the biggest crisis in its post-war history. Officials from the Republika Srpska (RS) entity, led by Milorad Dodik, are busy tearing up state-level institutions, initiating a number of processes that constitute secession in all but name. This could lead to the eventual disintegration of the country. After adopting a draft law establishing a High Judicial and Prosecution Council in RS, a move that essentially destroyed the rule of law in BiH, next on the agenda is tax administration and the re-establishment of an independent RS army – the same one that was convicted of ethnic cleansing and genocide during the war in Bosnia. To achieve these objectives, Dodik is ready to use violence.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns about what could happen in Bosnia – namely the use of brute force to redraw borders and carve out new territories. Dodik’s adventures are thoroughly supported by Moscow as part of its greater geopolitical objective of undermining Western support for Bosnia’s NATO and EU path. Not to be outdone, Dodik recently hailed the emergence of two new states in Ukraine, a talking point regularly employed by the Russian leadership. Moreover, local media in RS have started producing war-like propaganda boosting the pro-Russian Bosnian Serb separatist regime. These statements could be the catalyst in the implementation of a long-term plan for a new front in Moscow’s confrontation with the West.

As Russia’s invasion plan in Ukraine is clearly not going as Putin intended, Lavrov’s call to Dodik is understood by Sarajevo as a push to activate the already announced RS secession plan. In that case, Russia would recognise RS and provide all necessary support, particularly in the form of Wagner Group paramilitary units, which could provoke armed conflict in BiH. As was the case during the aggression on BiH in the 1990s, Serbia would serve as a logistical base for Serbian national and pro-Russian militias. Larger quantities of ‘Kornet’ ATGM recently purchased for the Serbian army, as well as other arms, are likely to find their way into the hands of Serbian secessionists in BiH.

Such a staged conflict in BiH – in the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, before the eyes of EUFOR and the NATO’s symbolic presence – would produce a considerable media and psychological backdrop, distracting the world from Russia’s plan to annihilate Ukraine. Predictions of a staged conflict are probably part of the reason for the decision to increase EUFOR troop numbers in BiH, which are still insufficient to guarantee peace and security in the country.

Towards a ‘New Security’

Such a scenario would shake NATO for the second time in a short period. It would also reinforce the ongoing change in the European understanding of collective defence and security architecture. As a result, the ‘New Security’ framework of the European continent will likely witness a period of significant capacity building in national defence systems, rearmament and modernisation of arms capabilities, and might entail the consolidation or even further expansion of NATO.

To avoid a massive fallout from Russia’s attack on Ukraine in the Western Balkans, the West should immediately work on providing concrete, real support

The Western Balkans will be no exception to this change. While the world stands in solidarity with the plight of Ukrainians, Serbian citizens in the Republic of Serbia and the Bosnian entity of RS have organised mass support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, spewing genocidaire messages while calling for the continuation of aggression. Serbia has also called on military reserves to participate in exercises for ‘the implementation of civil protection measures in peace, state of emergency and war’. In RS, the pro-Russian group Night Wolves have also supported the Russian invasion.

A pretext for possible intervention in BiH is steadily emerging. While Russian tanks rolled along Ukrainian roads, Lavrov himself alleged that mercenaries from Bosnia and other regional countries were in Donbas fighting against Moscow-backed rebels. Moreover, after initial threats in March last year, the Russian Ambassador in Sarajevo warned of a Ukrainian scenario if Bosnia and Herzegovina joined NATO. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg seems to recognise the seriousness of Russian threats. He used a recent press conference to highlight Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of the countries at particular risk of further Russian aggression after Ukraine.

The Balkan countries have learned from the past that more threats and fear can only produce more cause for action. For Bosnia – as is the case for Sweden and Finland – if this Russian threat is not resisted, countries like itself risk falling further under Russian influence and becoming even more unstable. This is also why the strategically prudent option for these countries is to seek further integration within the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. For the fear of being left out in the cold, the ‘New Security’ will force a change in understanding of the Russian threat to the collective security framework.

Same Ideology, Different Theatre

For those familiar with the history of the ideology of wars, the Russian invasion of Ukraine could not have come as a surprise. Putin’s ideology is a pale copy of Slobodan Milosevic’s doctrine of the 1990s. In Putin’s published essay, Ukraine represents a historical mistake that needs to be corrected, in the same way the Greater Serbia project saw BiH and Bosnian Muslims as a mistake in the genetic code that required eradication. Such an ideology is woven into an inexhaustible desire to justify invasions, aggression, and ultimately war crimes in order to fix the course of human history.

If the ‘denazification’ of Ukrainian heritage, language and culture sounds familiar, it is because Bosnians have lived through their own version. Rebranded as Srpski svet and led by Republika Srpska and Serbia, this campaign enjoys Russia’s full support in pursuing its goal of breaking BiH apart, tearing up its statehood and reversing its Euro-Atlantic path. The continuation of this ideology was on display last week, when representatives of the Serbs and Croats in BiH – two of Putin’s key proxies – used the European Parliament to platform their racist, Islamophobic views on Bosnia. These same views served as an excuse for genocide in the 1990s, with the same goal – ‘denazification’ of Bosnia. That is why Bosnians identify with Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and understand how thin the line is between frozen conflict and a new war in the Balkans.

To avoid a massive fallout from Russia’s attack on Ukraine in the Western Balkans, the West should immediately work on providing concrete, real support. If Secretary Stoltenberg is indeed serious in his intentions to help Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO should immediately deploy further troops from US and UK battalions within the EUFOR mission as an interim measure to prevent any kind of conflict. In addition, a permanent base should be considered at a strategic point in BiH.

At a time when the Western democratic order is under attack, it is essential to bolster European collective security and create a united defence alliance against Russia’s aggression and its proxies

Furthermore, as BiH has expressed its readiness for closer NATO integration, NATO should directly, on a bilateral basis, engage with Bosnia and Herzegovina on developing and supplying new and strengthening existing defence and security capacities of the Armed Forces of BiH, especially anti-armor and anti-air capabilities. This also implies ensuring maximum interoperability of Bosnian forces with NATO standards through increased training, provision of equipment and exchange of experiences.

Finally, accelerating Sarajevo’s NATO membership is essential. For BiH, it is an existential imperative that provides a minimum guarantee of survival in a region exposed to possible Russian aggression – hybrid or conventional. NATO integration, through a shortened, non-bureaucratic process, will bring the Western Balkans into the European collective security framework.

For all these reasons, it is extremely important that NATO and the EU, at this very moment, provide a sufficiently credible hard power presence in BiH that would deter Serbian secessionists from opening a new front of conflict with the West, which would be in Russia’s interest. Reforms of the constitutional-political system in BiH, which are modelled on the US and the EU, can only be continued under the protection of well-placed hard power. Otherwise, the West’s reluctance to take preventive action will once again mean it has to pay the price of Russia’s undermining of European collective security. Such a mistake would certainly cost much more than taking the necessary preventative measures now.

Peace at Last

From Scandinavia in the north to the Western Balkans in the south, the security framework of the European continent is changing. If Russia achieves its political aims, the West will no longer possess the strength to ambitiously defend its joint vision of peace. But while we hope for a positive outcome, the West should seek to prevent the Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina from becoming Moscow’s next theatre of activity. And if the Scandinavian duo decides on NATO membership, so be it. The decision to join an alliance belongs only to sovereign states, and no third party has a say in that decision – not in Sarajevo, Stockholm or Helsinki. At a time when the Western democratic order is under attack, it is essential to bolster European collective security and create a united defence alliance against Russia’s aggression and its proxies.

Otherwise, the war in Ukraine risks spreading beyond Ukrainian borders. In that case, NATO and the EU risk a complete defeat of the idea of the Euro-Atlantic space in the Western liberal world, to which Bosnia and Herzegovina deservedly belongs. As a result, the race towards national organisation of self-defence will begin, which will inevitably lead to shots being fired.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Ismet Fatih Čančar

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