Russia is Stoking An Overlooked Conflict in the Balkans
With all eyes on the Ukraine and Belarus, Moscow is quietly turning its attention to Bosnia-Herzegovina, reports CJ Werleman
With so much international focus on Russian troop deployments near Ukraine and Belarus’ increasingly provocative actions against the European Union, commentators are starting to ask whether another shooting war on the continent could be about to happen.
Most security analysts believe a Russian invasion of Ukraine is probable but “not imminent,” and that the crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border is challenging but solvable. However, if we look further southward to the Balkans there is an escalating security crisis that is attracting far less attention.
A report delivered to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) earlier this month warned that the risk of a potential conflict in the Balkans is now “very real”, following recent announcements by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik that Republika Srpska intends to secede from Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH).
The United States has expressed “concern” over Mr. Dodik’s statements, warning that such comments represent a “dangerous path” for BiH and the wider region.
Analysts have also warned that only “aggressive diplomatic action” and/or deployment of NATO forces can save a repeat of the armed conflict that took place between 1992 and 1995, which culminated with the Srebrenica genocide, the mass killing of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys.
It’s the memory of this atrocity that has ignited the current crisis, with Bosnian Serb officials blocking the functioning of state institutions in direct retaliation against a move by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) – an international body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Dayton peace accords – to ban Srebrenica genocide denialism. They warned that incidents of this have reached out of control levels among Serb nationalists.
“For all that painful history, the same Serbian ultra-nationalist forces have recently amped up their efforts to both deny the reality of the genocide and glorify the violence that contributed to it,” says the commentator Riada Asimovic Akyol. “Serbian nationalist songs about slaughtering Muslims are frequently blasted during the day or night in order to terrorize the sparse population of Bosniak returnees in Srebrenica — the city where more than 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys were massacred in cold blood in July 1995”.
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Dodik, who openly denies the Srebrenica genocide, has not only announced a boycott of BiH institutions, including judicial bodies and police forces in Republika Srpska, but also his intent to dismantle the joint Armed Forces of Bosnia and establish a Bosnian Serb Army.
On November 11, Russia announced it will support the formation of an independent Bosnian Serb state, calling the OHR’s decision to ban Srebrenica genocide denialism as “subjective and unbalanced”.
Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Dodik’s attacks on the Dayton peace accords is a “perfect outcome” for Russia, leaving behind a “broken US foreign policy legacy, chaos in the EU’s neighbourhood, or, in the best-case scenario, the evolution into a confederation that remains forever unable to adopt any foreign-policy decisions unfavourable to Russia – whether on Crimea, Ukraine, the fulfilment of Bosnia’s NATO aspirations, or any other issues that may come up”.
Russia is becoming entangled in Bosnia-Herzegovina
More troubling still is Russia’s involvement in Bosnia since 2016, when Republika Srpska agreed to host Russian police trainers and intelligence officers, and establish a $4 million training centre near Banja Luka, the defacto capital of Republika Srpska, in order to train Serb forces. Russia often refer to Bosnian Serbs as “little Russians”.
Worryingly, “these additions will put the Serbian police closer on par with Bosnia’s national security forces,” commented Foreign Policy magazine in 2018.
There have also been revelations that Russia delivered 2,500 semi-automatic weapons to Republika Srpska shortly before the opening of the “training centre,” and deployed Vladimir Putin’s paramilitary motorcycle gang the Night Wolves to send a message that “Russia stands behind” Bosnian Serb independence in BiH.
All of this has prompted fears among the Bosnian Muslim population of a rapidly deteriorating security situation.
“The situation in Bosnia is very tense,” a resident of Sarajevo told me recently. “We are afraid of a new war, and we know very well that if the war starts, we Muslims will be the victims again”.
These anxieties are heightened by recent reports that Serbia is on a “shopping spree for weapons,” with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused of working with Russia to destabilize Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
In September, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Serbia had been trying to “provoke a serious international conflict,” after his Serbian counterpart deployed special police to the border in response to Kosovo requiring drivers with Serbian registration plates to attach temporary plates when entering Kosovo.
Given Serbia is widely blamed for triggering the conflict and genocide that occurred in former Yugoslavia during the mid-1990, and playing a similar game again today, security analysts are urging NATO to redeploy to Bosnia and establish a presence in Sarajevo.
“The strategic town of Brčko in Bosnia’s northeast should be secured, and a NATO presence established there. With minimal resources, NATO could avert Bosnia’s slide into uncertainty and ensure that the Western political and military investment in peace in southeastern Europe is safeguarded,” says Hamza Karčić, an associate professor at the faculty of political science at the University of Sarajevo.
Needless to say, NATO, EU and the US has a solemn duty to prevent another Muslim genocide in the Balkans, because it was their initial hesitancy and inaction that allowed Serb forces to carry out the first genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.