This past December, Bosnia and Herzegovina celebrated the 22nd anniversary of the Dayton Accords, the U.S.-led peace treaty that officially halted the madness and horror of the Bosnian civil war. The air in Sarajevo was not quite filled with doves and the sounds of inter-ethnic fraternity, though, as many had hoped would be the case this long after hostilities had ceased. Instead, the atmosphere in the city was characterized by a pervasive worry on the part of governmental officials and citizens about the growing unruliness of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s mostly autonomous, Serb-majority territory.
When the Dayton Accords were signed in 1995, they established a complicated power-sharing structure consisting of two mostly autonomous regions, Republika Srpska (majority Serb) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (majority Bosniak and Croat), as well as a weak national government. The role of President or Head of State is constituted by a three member panel featuring one Croat, one Bosniak, and one Serb. Such a system was intended to secure peace and harmony by allowing the “rival” ethnic groups significant sovereignty over their everyday affairs, while still existing under the umbrella of a unified Bosnia. Unfortunately, the atmosphere remains as tense as ever. But this should not be simply chalked up to “typical” ethnic antagonism. Another actor has left its fingerprints all over the rising tension: Russia.
Russian resistance to NATO and EU expansion is well-documented, globally consequential, and not at all limited to its actions in Ukraine. As it has done for many years since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Russia continues to actively work with the leadership of Republika Srpska, which represents Bosnia’s Serb-majority autonomous territory. The objective of Russia’s relationship with Republika Srpska is clear: keep the country divided and antagonistic along ethnic and religious lines so that EU and NATO membership is not possible.
Since 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin has met seven times with the leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also visited the region on a handful of occasions. Fiscally, Russia’s commitment to gaining influence is clear. After all, they are the second largest investor in Republika Srpska, second only to Serbia. For example, Russia has, through its state oil companies, subsidized the construction of oil pipelines as drilling projects, most likely with the intention of building greater economic separation between the Bosnian Federal Government and Srpska.
Beyond flows of cash and oil, the shadow of Russia can be seen in the rhetoric of the leaders of Republika Srpska, as well as in the changing tone of debate. With Russian encouragement, Dodik has ramped up his purposefully divisive nationalist rhetoric and has since called for Republika Srpska to separate from Bosnia entirely, a maneuver that would dissolve the power sharing agreements established under the Dayton Accords. In an even more blatant and provocative move in January of this year, reports indicated that Russian-trained mercenaries began undertaking an effort to establish a paramilitary unit directly serving Milorad Dodik—the likely intention of which being an attempt to delegitimize the ethnically unified army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This isn’t the first time Russia has leapfrogged its usual strategy of rhetoric-curating and directly involved itself in the military affairs of the area. According to news reports confirmed by Bosnian security officials, members of a pro-Republika Srpska militia known as “Serbian Honor” were trained in a Russian funded facility in Serbia in 2017. And this is all simply the tip of the iceberg.
Given the implications of Republika Srpska’s increasingly threatening actions, particularly on the sustainability of a U.S.-crafted peace agreement, it is curious that these Balkan blunders have not made more headlines in the West. It certainly does appear that the attention of the U.S., the E.U., and the other Western foreign policy institutions is focused on checking Russian subversion in Ukraine and the Baltic States. Indeed there appears to be a perception that Russia’s actions in Bosnia are an unfortunate sideshow to larger matters elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East. This is, regretfully, a fundamentally flawed, short-sighted, and ultimately dangerous approach. The onus here is not on the Russians. Their interest in helping to sow ethnic discord in Bosnia should be entirely expected. What is surprising and, frankly, unacceptable, is the blasé, uninterested Western response. As the West recedes from its former role in Bosnia, it is more or less allowing Russia to exercise its interests without fear of reprisal. In particular, the actions of the E.U. are quite puzzling. Even as Brussels rolls out its vision for future Balkan membership to counteract Russian and Chinese regional influence, Bosnia is noticeably receiving only secondary concern. According to Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council, the E.U. has created a vacuum for Russia to enter by reducing its stabilization force to 600 soldiers and capitulating on a project to iterate the ethnically divided Bosnian police forces. “As long as the barriers to entry are non-existent, we are leaving the barn door open,” Bassuener said. “It’s a screaming policy failure we haven’t paid for yet.”
Should Russia achieve its ultimate goal of destabilization, the implications are grave. If Bosnia collapses, it could drag the other Balkan nations into conflict in a similar manner as occurred during the breakup of Yugoslavia. A successful Bosnian Serb independence campaign could empower ethnic groups in neighboring nations to rise up and attempt to overthrow power sharing structures established in their own communities, such as those in Macedonia and, to some extent, Kosovo. Conversely, the threat of ethnic revolt could encourage other Balkan leaders to crack down on their own populations, creating even more resentment and fuel for insurrection. If the Balkan region as a whole implodes, it would very likely drag the E.U. and NATO (of which several Balkan nations are members) into the conflict. The U.S., too, certainly won’t get off scot-free. American foreign policy leaders and makers could feel significant pull (both internally and from other Western nations) to intervene in such a conflict, due to their deep involvement in Balkan peace-processes post-Yugoslavia. The West has a clear choice: give up on Bosnia and likely deal with a subsequent crisis that makes the present Ukrainian affair look like a minor squabble, or act now and give the situation the diplomatic attention, resources, and effort that it clearly deserves.