Beyond Ukraine: Putin’s playbook in the Western Balkans

Last updated:
Mar 17, 2022

In the first instalment in our ‘Beyond Ukraine’ series, we have looked at the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). This includes providing a deeper understanding of recent developments in the country, and what the conflict could mean for Bosnia’s sensitive political environment. Bosnia has one of the most complex political systems in Europe, to understand what is currently unfolding, we have to revisit how the current system came to be.

After the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars, came the Dayton Accords on the 21st of November 1995. This agreement was a way of brokering peace between the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. It preserved Bosnia as a single state made up of two parts, the Bosniak-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb Republic.

BiH is principally comprised of Bosnia Muslim and Croat-majority areas, and also Republika Srpska (RS), which is principally comprised of Serb majority areas, meaning the entities were drawn up along approximate ethnic lines. The two regions were given wide autonomy, but kept some joint institutions, including the army, the top judiciary and tax administration.

However, the presidency of Bosnia is where the country’s political balance becomes more complicated. Three members make up the presidency: a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat representative, with one of the members holding the role of chairman on an 8-month rotation. Despite the chairman role, the three members share equal power, with decisions reached by consensus.

Whilst the Dayton Accords ceased the violent conflict, it was not a perfect solution. The deal left all sides dissatisfied and nurtured existing grievances. Such issues have planted the seed for the growing instability witnessed today, with unresolved rivalries and opposing interests among the three ethnic groups resurfacing.

At present, the three members of the presidency are Šefik Džaferović - representing Bosniaks, Željko Komšić - representing Croats and current chairman, and finally Milorad Dodik, representing Serbs.

For many years, Dodik has desired an independent RS, viewing it as a state-in-waiting, suffocated by the Dayton Accords, forbidding secession from Bosnia. Dodik’s own political success has also become dependent on fostering ethnic and nationalist rhetoric, exacerbating existing tensions throughout Bosnia.

Prior to developments in Ukraine, Dodik began making steps towards a separate RS. In November 2021, the Bosnian Serb entity assembly voted yes on a set of provisions that would see the regional government opt-out of national institutions.

Running parallel to, and arguably intertwined in Dodik’s separatist agenda, lies his relationship with Russia. Whilst the alliance is unsurprising, given the closeness between Russia and Serbia, as they share strong political, cultural and economic ties with Moscow, Dodik has been a key player in maintaining Russian interests in Bosnia.

At the end of 2006, the same year as Dodik’s re-election as the prime minister of RS, the RS National Assembly and the RS Government consented to the privatisation of Republika Srpska’s oil industry, which subsequently came into possession of the Russian company NeftGazinKor.

Throughout Dodik’s leadership of RS, a synchronicity between Dodik’s destabilising manoeuvres in Bosnia and his consultations with the Russian officials has developed.

The key here is opening the historic Russian playbook of foreign policy; destabilising other states to weaken them, consequently strengthening Russia. Over the years, Bosnia has repeatedly voiced their desire to join NATO and the EU, beginning negotiations over NATO accession in 2008.

Akin to what we are witnessing in Ukraine, Russia has a hostile attitude over regional allies/neighbours steering towards a Western axis, deeming it as a direct threat to their own security. In March 2021, Russia made their position clear, with their embassy in Bosnia warning the country that if it joined NATO, “our country will have to react to this hostile act”.

If RS were to become independent, or join Serbia, it would leave the existing Bosnia politically weak, lacking a clear central government with Croats and Bosniaks likely to further fracture. Ultimately, it would also leave Bosnia in an unfit shape to join NATO or the EU and therefore an independent RS, a strategic gain for Russia.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to have accelerated and intensified Dodik’s separatist’s efforts. On 11 February, MPs in RS voted to withdraw from key state institutions and set up Serb-only bodies in its place. Not long after, on 21 February, Putin recognised the Ukrainian republics, Luhansk and Donetsk as independent. On the same day, an EU meeting took place, deciding to double the size of its peacekeeping force in Bosnia by sending in 500 reserves as a precautionary measure on 24 February. The EU’s response was a clear indication of concerns of Russia’s actions causing a domino effect on Bosnia’s stability.

In addition, going further than the Serbian president, on 2 March, Dodik moved to prevent Bosnia from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN’s vote. Specifically, Dodik sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres through the body’s Russian mission, asking him to stop the Bosnian ambassador from voting on the resolution because the presidency had not agreed on a joint stance on the matter. The attempt was unsuccessful, with Bosnia joining the UN’s vote. Further, Dodik failed to get the war in Ukraine onto the agenda of Bosnia’s presidency session on 2 March. The motivation behind this was to revisit Bosnia’s position on Ukraine, potentially becoming neutral. In spite of Dodik’s attempts, his Bosniak and Croat counterparts stated Bosnia had formed their position on Ukraine in 2014, condemning Russia’s actions.

Subsequently, Dodik responded by beginning to pull the country’s Serb-dominated region out of key national institutions, such as the military, tax system and judiciary, leading the EU, US and NATO to criticise the act. Unsurprisingly, Russia expressed its support.

In light of these developments, there are obvious questions over whether an independent RS could materialise, and if it could be another staging ground for the current conflict, if it was to go beyond Ukrainian borders.

Lets tackle the question over the feasibility of an independent RS first. Prior to events in Ukraine, many observers could view Dodik’s actions as the latest incident out of many over the years, where Dodik historically pacifies his stance on an independent RS.

In addition, an independent RS is not logistically simple, largely due to its placement in the Brčko region. The region has an autonomous government affiliated to the UN, which divides RS into two in the north of the country.

The Western international community has also been consistent in their view that RS cannot secede from Bosnia. This is due RS secession going against fundamental aspects of the Dayton Accords, the potential knock-on effect of destabilisation of the whole of Bosnia, and finally the risk of an independent RS becoming a new proxy war for Russia and the West. The lack of international acceptance would arguably plague RS with more problems than it's worth, with the RS leadership knowing this. In response to their separatist acts, the RS has already received an array of threats from the EU, including asset-freezes and visa-bans on RS leaders, additional to the EU already withholding €600m of road and rail investments from RS, as well as prior US sanctions on Dodik in January 2022.

The invasion of Ukraine should also be seen as expediting a moment of reckoning for Bosnia, as aside from the country’s historic ties and actions by Dodik, it is also a candidate country for EU membership and seeks more alignment to the West.

Undoubtedly, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown the international community into uncharted territory, or at least a situation that has not been experienced for decades. Russia has proved it will go beyond the expected to cut off states from Western organisations, meaning there is a possibility for Russia to intensify efforts to break up Bosnia.

In the event of an independent RS, it calls into question whether the Western Balkans could witness conflict similar to that of Ukraine. We assess there are strategically better ways for Russia to achieve their goals than boots on the ground. This is further supported by the reported high casualties Russia is experiencing in Ukraine, likely deterring it from repeating events elsewhere – for now.

We expect Russia will merely continue to support Dodik and thus securing a puppet, while also nurturing links with Serbia and accumulating anti-Western parties elsewhere in the region for political dominance. The Russian experience in Ukraine may have taught Putin to play the long game and seek out friendly states in the region.

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