For more than a decade now, Vladimir Putin has sought to reverse what he called in 2005 the “major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century,” that is, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Playing a very weak economic hand as oil prices fell, and beset by major demographic problems and an aging Soviet-era military, Putin has done quite well. At minimal risk, he invaded Georgia, and he keeps it under his thumb today using economic, military, and diplomatic pressure. Energy remains an important tool for Moscow; a recent agreement allows Russia to pipe natural gas through Georgia to Russia-friendly Armenia.
Russia seized the Crimea, continues military operations in Eastern Ukraine, and is the major power in the Black Sea, from which it has projected power into the Middle East. Russian arms and support have prolonged Syria’s civil war and all but assured the brutal Syrian dictator’s throne. To the north, Putin threatens the Baltic states with cyberattacks, the possibility of quick and mass mobilizations, and propaganda aimed at dividing ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers within those States.
Traced on a map, Russia’s influence is an incomplete parabola that reaches from the Black Sea through the Eastern Mediterranean and curves northeast into the Baltic Sea. Moscow is now meddling in the Balkans. If it is successful in restarting the ethnic/religious disputes there, the unfinished parabola that Russia has carved since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power will be completed with major influence that reaches its western vertex in the Balkan heart of central Europe. A cordon sanitaire this is not, yet; but Putin’s aims are clear.
Russian tampering in the Balkans goes back centuries. In their struggles with the Ottomans, Russia aided Serb rebels with arms in the 19th century. Russian “volunteers” for the Slav cause and its mobilization in the face of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s declaration of war against Serbia in July 1914 helped ignite World War I. The pattern of Russia’s behavior in the Balkans has not changed.
Political tensions are rising in Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than two decades removed from the country’s bloody, ethnically fueled war and the collapse of Yugoslavia, the divided country is experiencing a resurgence in separatist rhetoric from Bosnian Serbs in the Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s autonomous Serbian enclave. Separatist talk is certain to push Bosnian Croats toward Zagreb and increase the fragility of the Dayton Accords, the 1995 arrangement that established the Republika Srpska as an autonomous part of Bosnia and ended the Balkans conflict. There’s a good reason “Balkanization” has entered our vocabulary as a description of splintering states. Russian involvement has helped inflame the Serbs’ resentment toward their neighbors. Increased instability in the Balkans challenges the NATO alliance, threatens the European Union, and offers Vladimir Putin another low-cost option to stick it to the West.
Specifically, Russia has increased its public support of Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska, who has called for a referendum on independence within the Serbian-majority region of Bosnia. In September 2016, Dodik held a referendum in Republika Srpska that reestablished January 9 as a day of celebration for the region’s 1992 declaration of “independence” from Bosnia. Dodik held the referendum, which won 99.8 percent of the vote in the region, in defiance of a ruling by the Bosnia-Herzegovina Constitutional Court that it discriminated against non-Serb citizens. The international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, declared the September 2016 referendum to be both “illegal and unconstitutional.”
Russia has increased its public backing for the separatist sentiment in Bosnia-Herzegovina. President Vladimir Putin hosted Dodik in Moscow before the September 2016 referendum and again in February 2017. Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia, Petar Ivancov, openly declared Russian support for the September 2016 vote in support of the Bosnian Serbs. In 2016, Russia also began to train and equip the Republika Srpska’s special-police forces, while Russian propaganda outlets such as Sputnik News have highlighted the region’s Russian ties.
Russia’s support for Dodik and his sectarian rhetoric intentionally stands in contrast to that of the United States and the EU. European ambassadors severed contact with Dodik and threatened the Bosnian Serb leader with sanctions in early 2017. The United States sanctioned Dodik in January 2017 for threatening the Dayton Accords.
Dodik has called for stronger ties with Russia, even as his ethnic cousins, the Serbs of neighboring Serbia, have sought to walk a fine line politically between the European Union, with which it trades heavily, and Russia, with which the Serbs have traditionally allied. Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, who has minimal regard for Dodik, sees himself as the rightful defender of the Serbian cause. He opposes the Republika Srpska independence referendum. Recent polling showed only 6 percent of Serbs in Serbia would be willing to go to war to defend ethnic Serbs elsewhere in the Balkans.
Russia’s increasing support for Dodik as he manipulates tensions in Bosnia occurs against the backdrop of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 2016 formal application for membership in the European Union. Russia may promise Dodik to support Bosnian Serb independence, but it is unlikely that Russia would become involved militarily if the Dayton Accords collapse and Bosnia turns violent once again. However, this provocation and voicing of support to a disruptive leader such as Dodik fits within the Kremlin’s modus operandi: to disrupt and disturb Europe and NATO, and to sow chaos in countries that appear leaning toward the West.
Western states that want to keep the peace in the Balkans have made small steps in the right direction. The European Union peacekeeping force in Bosnia — EUFOR — has warned European politicians that it will intervene should the conflict reignite. Hoyt Brian Yee, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, further warned in testimony to Congress on May 17, 2017, that Russia is a “malign influence” across the Balkans and is actively pushing for the secession of the region.
More action is needed to turn around a worsening situation. From fiscal year 2016 to the proposed 2018 budget, U.S. international broadcasting has slashed its budget for the Bosnian-language service by one-fifth. The stakes in Bosnia and the Balkans argue for more, not less, U.S. broadcasting. EUFOR in Bosnia should be substantially increased. Four hundred Dutch peacekeepers failed to stop the slaughter of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1995. Increasing the size of today’s EUFOR — 800 troops — would be a useful demonstration of Western resolve. Russia should be quietly told that additional sanctions will be applied if they continue to stir up trouble in the Republika Srpska.
A return of violence in Bosnia would rattle NATO, with unknowable results. The U.S. would be very hard pressed to contribute effective combat power, as it did in the early 1990s. Ethnic violence would spread beyond the Balkans. Jihadists from across the Middle East and beyond would be unlikely to stay out of the fray. Hundreds of thousands of Bosniaks fled their country 20 years ago. Europe does not need another refugee crisis, and the U.S. — already occupied by developments with ISIS, the Arabian peninsula, and North Korea — does not need another hotspot.