Concerns about the region becoming increasingly unstable and fractured are real and legitimate.

Recent explosions in Transnistria have raised concerns about Moldova being dragged into the Russian-Ukrainian war. However, the conflict is also having a destabilising impact on the Western Balkans, as it has put pressure on countries in this region to “pick a side” as room for neutrality shrinks across Europe.

The Kremlin sees the opportunity to exploit tensions in the region as advantageous to Russia’s quest to counter NATO’s eastward expansion. Although experts differ on the extent to which Russia could play a destabilising role, political crises, economic malaises, major governmental problems, and brain drain of recent years in the Balkans have granted Moscow opportunities to meddle. The alleged Russian-backed coup plot in Montenegro in 2016 has contributed to these views.

Moscow exerts much of its influence in Europe’s “inner courtyard” via Serbia. The Serbian Orthodox Church and Kremlin-linked media outlets have a role to play in this. 

Notably, while much of Europe united behind stringent sanctions against Russia after February 24, Serbia did not join the bandwagon. In fact, since Russian soldiers entered Ukraine, the number of daily direct flights from Belgrade to Moscow increased from one to three.

Sarajevo’s perspective

The fragile political order in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has grown increasingly strained since the start of the conflict.

In Sarajevo, there are fears about Russia turning Republika Srpska (RS) — Bosnia’s predominantly Serbian entity constituting 49 percent of BiH’s territory — into a “Balkan Transnistria”. Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of the Presidency of BiH, has a history of threatening to separate RS from BiH in line with narratives about the “Serb World”.

Dodik has upped nationalist demands, severely undermining BiH’s post-war equilibrium while challenging Sarajevo to take back certain powers that RS now asserts. He has gone as far as banning state-level police and intelligence agencies from operating in RS while setting up parallel institutions and even announcing intentions to establish a RS Army.

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, Sarajevo officialdom was already worried about BiH’s survival as a sovereign state, yet such concerns have only deepened following February 24. Moscow’s actions in Georgia’s South Ossetia, Moldova’s Transnistria, and parts of Eastern Ukraine inform concerns that Russia may also flood RS with money, arms, and military advisors via Serbia.

In Sarajevo there was much relief after the Western-backed Ukrainian resistance caused the Russians to bleed and fail to usurp Kiev. “Had Kiev fallen to Russia, RS would have declared independence and we would already be at war,” Harun Karcic, a Bosnian journalist and political analyst covering the Balkans, told TRT World.

NATO membership?

Since the 2000s, there has been talk about BiH joining NATO and the US has been a supporter of the country’s entry into the Western Alliance. In practice, however, this is unviable.

Although the country’s Bosniak Muslim and Croat leaders want to see BiH join NATO, Dodik adamantly opposes it. Major foreign policy decisions require a consensus among all three parts of the tripartite presidency, which also explains why BiH never imposed sanctions on Russia post-February 24.

Segments of the population that support Putin also strongly oppose the idea of BiH’s NATO ascension. Many Bosnian Serbs have been sporting the Z symbol, and the Night Wolves, a pro-Russian motorcycle gang, has held gatherings in RS to express solidarity with Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine. 

In March, Russia’s ambassador to Sarajevo, Igor Kalabukhov, threatened BiH with the ‘Ukraine treatment’ when addressing the prospects for the country entering NATO. “If [BiH] chooses to be a member of anything, that is its internal business. But there is another thing, our reaction,” said Kalabukhov. “We have shown what we expect on the example of Ukraine. If there are threats, we will react.”

Moscow could recognise RS’s “independence” if Putin’s administration grew seriously concerned about BiH entering NATO. Under such circumstances, BiH would possibly spiral back into an armed conflict. At that point, Russian “peacekeepers” could show up in Banja Luka or other parts of RS via Serbia to help “stabilise” the situation.

Just as Russia’s actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have created conditions in those countries which make their membership in NATO unrealistic, a Russian presence in parts of RS would have the same effect.

RS becoming a de facto pro-Russian breakaway republic in the Western Balkans would put that “independent” country on the borders of two NATO members: Croatia and Montenegro. From Moscow’s perspective, this would enable Russia to play tit-for-tit with NATO as the US and other Western power advocate bringing more countries on Russia’s borders into the Alliance.

Russia’s threat perceptions

BiH joining NATO would deprive Moscow of the means to assert influence in the Western Balkans via RS. Such influence enables the Kremlin to take advantage of ethnic/religious tensions in BiH, which helps Moscow distract the West from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Russia is concerned about Bosnian membership in NATO because it believes that it is being surrounded,” explained John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, in an interview with TRT World. “Putin has a garrison mentality, and he doesn't want to see Bosnia become part of the encircling armies. For Putin, at least, this is a civilisational conflict.”

There are other ideational factors in play as well. “None of these Western Balkan countries can contribute that much significantly to NATO in [the] context of their military strength but rather through affiliation help repel Russian influence in Europe,” Sasha Toperich, a former Bosnian diplomat who currently serves as Senior Executive Vice President of the Transatlantic Leadership Network, told TRT World.

“Neutrality is no longer as attractive an option as it was prior to [Russia’s attack on Ukraine], at least for those who'd hoped that Bosnia could represent something of a middle ground between the western Balkans and Serbia,” according to Feffer. “And, of course, given the governance structure in [BiH], neutrality was not so much a principle as a practicality.”

Nonetheless, a consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been growing support in Sarajevo and other parts of BiH for entering NATO, however unrealistic. Yet BiH remains a NATO partner and the Alliance could enlarge its presence in the country which would be legitimate under the 1995 peace agreement. 

Many Bosnians who oppose Dodik’s policies want the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) to intensify its activities in their country, viewing the EU’s peacekeeping force as a temporary measure to help keep the peace. 

As BiH undergoes its gravest post-war crisis, such actions would send a message to the Kremlin and pro-Putin elements in Serbia and RS about Western institutions’ commitment to countering Russian influence and Moscow’s proxies in the Balkan country. Therefore, there is much that the West can do to help Sarajevo maintain BiH’s stability and defend its national sovereignty.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World