While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the Balkans back on the West’s radar, transatlantic malaise on security issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina threatens peace in the country once again. High Representative Christian Schmidt’s warning from the end of 2021 still looms: “[T]he prospects for further division and conflict [in Bosnia and Herzegovina] are very real.”
One major development is cause for concern: the potential secession of the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska. The Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency system, Milorad Dodik, caused speculation that Republika Srpska may secede when he spearheaded the effort to sever ties with the centralized military, judicial, and tax systems. Control of these three institutions by the central government is essential for any functioning democracy. Since Bosnia and Herzegovina has two “entities,” the Federation and Republika Srpska, withdrawal from major institutions by the Republika Srpska would signal the country’s dissolution.
Dodik recently announced that withdrawal would be delayed for another six months, ostensibly due to the “international political and security situation” in Ukraine. Reading between the lines, Dodik seems cautious about his next move because one of his patrons — the Kremlin — is facing major sanctions and other unanticipated difficulties on account of its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. In addition, Aleksander Vučić, the President of Serbia, is juggling his allegiances to the East and West. While he wants to support Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, unwavering support for Republika Srpska’s secession would be a death sentence for Serbia’s E.U. aspirations. However, if Russia gains the upper hand in Ukraine, both Dodik and Vučić’s calculus will change. Western allies must act now to keep them in check before that happens.
Recognizing that the structural factors that gave rise to Dodik’s secessionist moves are still present, the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom should take immediate action to transform this frozen conflict. Russia’s war in Ukraine has made sending NATO troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina vital for maintaining a safe and secure environment in the Balkans.
From the European Union to NATO
The most important item on the short-term agenda is the mandate of the European Union’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as EUFOR or Operation Althea. For almost a decade after the end of the war in 1995, NATO had primary responsibility for peacekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In December 2004, the United Nations, in accordance with the Dayton Peace Agreement, adopted a resolution to establish a multinational military implementation force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Consequently, NATO transferred its mission to Operation Althea. The United Nations has annually renewed the designation of Operation Althea as the Bosnian peacekeeping force, most recently in November 2021.
The differences between NATO and Operation Althea are important. Althea operates exclusively in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while NATO’s operations are worldwide. Althea’s troop strength has varied. Originally, it was around 6,500 strong but dwindled over time to a mere 600 early this year. Days after the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in February, the European Union sent in 500 additional soldiers. NATO’s troop strength is more than 3 million, with the ability to add more at a moment’s notice, most notably from the U.S. Army stationed at the Aviano air base in Italy.
Operation Althea is composed of troops exclusively from European Union countries. NATO forces are drawn from members of the European Union and beyond, most notably the United States and the United Kingdom. It is important to note that through the Berlin Plus Agreements, Althea can draw on NATO troops, but this mechanism requires a decisive action from the European force.
From the perspective of those who want to promote peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is preferable to have a peacekeeping force like NATO that includes significant participation from the United States and the United Kingdom. This was demonstrated earlier this year by the decisions of the United States and the United Kingdom to impose sanctions on various Bosnian politicians who are threatening the country’s territorial integrity and engaging in corrupt activities. The European Union threatened to impose sanctions but did not do so, primarily because of the opposition from several E.U. countries, including Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the commander of Operation Althea, Gen. Anton Wessely, downplayed the increased threat to security in the region while British and American diplomats raised the alarm. NATO forces have consistently behaved more assertively than those of the European Union’s peacekeeping force. In response to a recent border incident in neighboring Kosovo, for example, the commander of NATO forces there issued a press release announcing it was prepared to intervene militarily “if stability is jeopardized.”
One key difference between Operation Althea and NATO is that under Annex 1-A, Article I (a) of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Althea’s mission must be approved by the United Nations. This means that all members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, must annually agree to continue its mandate. NATO’s ability to act as the peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina is authorized under a different section of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Annex1-A, Article I (b) states, “NATO may establish a force … under the authority of the North Atlantic Council.” This permission is granted without a time limit or dependency on U.N. Security Council approval. The fact that NATO transferred its peacekeeping mission to the European Union in 2004 does not affect NATO’s ability to reassume its previous role today. This means that NATO could legally deploy troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina without gaining permission from anyone, including the U.N. Security Council and the political leaders of Republika Srpska.
Increased Militarism in Republika Srpska
The need for an effective peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina grows as Russia increasingly supports paramilitary groups in Republika Srpska and underwrites Dodik’s plans for an independent military in the majority-Serb entity. This support has not waned with the February escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The Russian police have partnered with Republika Srpska on intelligence collection, counterterrorism, and combating cybercrime. Republika Srpska hosts Russian police trainers and sends members of Bosnian Serb special units to Moscow for training. Russian intelligence officers give regular lectures and teach courses in the Republika Srpska police academy and at the University of Banja Luka. Republika Srpska has recently sought to procure numerous military-grade weapons, prompting a request for justification from the Office of the High Representative — the international institution created immediately after the war to oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In addition, Russian organizations such as the Night Wolves biker group are helping to form nationalistic military forces supporting Dodik.
By supporting the increased militarization of Republika Srpska, Russia seeks to establish a client state where it can damage Althea’s credibility and weaken the transatlantic alliance. If destabilized, Bosnia and Herzegovina will be prevented from seeking further integration with the West. This can be seen as part of Russia’s larger strategy to disrupt and reshape the international order. It is important to note that NATO and other major western institutions deny membership to countries with undefined borders. Russia’s support of efforts to divide and destabilize Bosnia thus serves to prevent its incorporation in these institutions.
One of Dodik’s unlikely allies is the Bosnian Croat leadership, particularly Dragan Čović, a former Croat member of the tripartite presidency and leader of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Čović and Dodik often work in concert to further divide the country to consolidate their power and influence. Čović has echoed Dodik’s divisive rhetoric and has argued for a third “Croatian” entity in the south of Bosnia and Herzegovina, another move that undermines Bosnian sovereignty.
Čović, like Dodik, is often considered one of Putin’s key allies in the Western Balkans. However, Čović also enjoys backing from Croatia: Even tacit support for these schismatic actors from a country in both the European Union and NATO undermines transatlantic goals in the region.
Potential Russian Disruption of Operation Althea
While Russia has not used its veto in the U.N. Security Council to prevent the extension of Althea’s mandate in the past, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have changed the Kremlin’s position. One scenario is that Russia could use its veto power on the council to block the extension of the mandate this coming November or to demand that Althea’s troop strength be limited or decreased. There is reason to believe Russia could do so: Last year, the appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina was not confirmed due to opposition by Russia and China. Instead, Russia and China voted in favor of a resolution to end the mandate of the High Representative entirely. Although this resolution was not adopted, no U.N. Security Council resolution was proposed to confirm Schmidt as a result. All members of the Peace Implementation Council approved Christian Schmidt’s appointment except Russia. The council’s steering board does not require unanimity for such a decision: Thus, Schmidt assumed the position of High Representative on Aug. 1, 2021. The Peace Implementation Council is an international organization formed in 1995 to implement the Dayton Peace Agreement, and it has been operational in conjunction with the Office of the High Representative ever since.
Russia could similarly disrupt the status quo again this year. During the recent NATO summit in Madrid, E.U. defense ministers met to discuss the possibility of maintaining Operation Althea’s presence even if Russia uses its veto power in November. If the tripartite Bosnian Presidency votes to continue the mandate separately from the U.N. Security Council, this provides legal authorization for Operation Althea to continue. However, the details are sketchy and require acquiescence from Dodik and the Republika Srpska.
Unfortunately, it seems clear that the European Union’s mandate and the Office of the High Representative are tied together in the politics of the United Nations and Russia’s veto power on the U.N. Security Council. Until the February escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war, both the Kremlin and Milorad Dodik opposed the European Union’s mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and sought to eliminate or reduce it. However, after meeting with Vladimir Putin in June of this year in St. Petersburg, Dodik claimed that Russia would approve the extension of the mandate if the further expansion of Operation Althea’s troops is prohibited. The Kremlin and its allies in the Republika Srpska potentially perceive Althea as much weaker than NATO. Thus, if the Republika Srpska were to take any measures to secede and destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina, it would prefer to deal with a weak European rather than a robust NATO. Operation Althea’s low troop count, even with the reserve forces deployed in late February, lends this scenario credence.
The Need for a NATO Troop Deployment Now
Both the European Union and NATO currently have operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Operation Althea has primary peacekeeping responsibilities with 1,100 troops at the ready. As previously mentioned, Althea can call upon NATO to augment troops through the Berlin Plus Agreements. However, as Althea’s mandate hangs in the balance, this renders the Berlin Plus mechanism moot.
In 2006, Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the NATO Partnership for Peace program and in 2010 joined the NATO Membership Action plan. NATO retains a military office in Sarajevo with the primary mission of assisting the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina with reforms and commitments related to the Partnership for Peace. Its secondary task is providing logistics and other support to the European Union’s force. The central government in Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen the need for NATO membership and called for the country to join the alliance. Foreign Minister Bisera Turković recently said that “the crisis we are currently in perhaps is the best indication of why we need the security of a NATO alliance as soon as possible.” For Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, becoming a member of NATO is a long way off. Gaining membership in NATO cannot be relied upon to address the current precarious position of the country. However, a NATO deployment of several thousand troops would go a long way to deterring Russian meddling, the successionist moves by the Republika Srpska, and other violence and destabilizing ventures.
One of the key areas where NATO troops need to be positioned now is the strategic town of Brčko. Located in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, this town physically divides the Bosnian Serb entity and cuts off the territorial connection of the northwestern part and the eastern part of the Republika Srpska entity. During the war, NATO used Brčko as a type of “no man’s land,” providing separation between Serbian and Bosnian forces. It was also an important town for peacekeeping operations immediately following the war. In 1995, NATO troops were positioned at Camp McGovern in Brčko and the Eagle Base near Tuzla. These forces pulled out during the Iraq War in 2004, and the Russians have eyed Bosnia and Herzegovina since then.
As Ambassador Nicholas Burns once remarked, “diplomacy [in the Balkans] works best when the United States and E.U. member states work together.” While the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom claim to be on the same page regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, they are not engaged in serious coordination of efforts. A NATO deployment is a good first step to creating a stable environment conducive to a long-term strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Dr. Leon Hartwell is the senior adviser of the Central and South-East Europe Programme at IDEAS, London School of Economics.
Dr. Hikmet Karčić is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo and the author of Torture, Humiliate, Kill: Inside the Bosnian Serb Camp System (University of Michigan Press, 2022).
Josephine Mintel is a research fellow from the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations.
Image: European Union Force