This month has likely been the most crushing for Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine almost seven months ago. In an aggressive counter-offensive operation, Ukrainian forces recaptured the cities of Kharkiv and Kupiansk, reportedly retaking 3,000 square kilometres of territory rapidly, and driving out Russian forces. Aside from Kherson and the annexed territories in the east of the country, Moscow has, so far, been unable to maintain hold of any other major Ukrainian city until now. Seven months in, things are not working out well for Russia.
One failure does not necessarily translate into another failure in a different arena, however, as the Kremlin and its various agents still remain capable and successful agitators, influencers and disruptors. That is the case in scenarios like those in Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic through the use of the mercenary Wagner Group, as well as in Europe and North America, through cyber manipulation and influence in the political and media sectors. In the western Balkans, though, it is far deeper and more heavily embedded.
Despite the presence of long-held domestic disputes and divisions, the real fear by analysts is that in Bosnia – and the Western Balkans region, overall – Russia could exploit those divisions through the use of local players, both political and civilian.
Politically, the Russians have Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency who, last year, sparked fears of a renewed conflict in the country by courting the secession of areas like Republika Srpska from the nation. Such a move facilitated by Serbia and, more subtly, Russia, revived thoughts of a return to the traumatic events of 1992-1995 and Serbian aggression.
Since then, and since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meeting with Dodik last year and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic this year, those fears seem to have abated for now. At any time, however, the Kremlin can readily resume those pulsations, and there are reports that the Russian Embassy in Bosnia claimed that President Vladimir Putin and Dodik have a private agreement regarding the steps to take in the divided country.
In a far subtler way, Moscow could also utilise pro-Russia Serb sympathisers and protesters to project its political interests, exert pressure on authorities or to further instability in the region. Aside from those protesters demonstrating earlier this year in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are claims – by mostly Western analysts – that the Kremlin pays them and would certainly do so in the future to incite violence by shooting at police officers in northern Kosovo.
READ: Why are the US and EU silent about Serb secessionist Milorad Dodik?
According to Reuf Bajrovic – Bosnia's former Minister of Energy, Mining and Industry, and a policy analyst who is presently the Vice President of the US-Europe Alliance – who spoke to Middle East Monitor, the Ukrainian military's strong resistance to the Russian invasion was a key factor in preventing Moscow from successfully targeting the western Balkans.
"Russian proxies in Bosnia were on the verge of instigating a rebellion but the long war in Ukraine has upended their plans", he said. "Had the Russians quickly won in Ukraine, Bosnia would have been next." It is not just Moscow which has been exploiting the region's divisions, however, with Bajrovic stressing that "the most dangerous aspect of Bosnia's almost permanent crisis is that the Western countries are closely cooperating and enabling some of the Russian proxies, such as Bosnian Croat political party – the HDZ [Croatian Democratic Union]."
Much of these issues and the proclivity to instability result directly from the Dayton Accords and the power-sharing system that governs the country. Apart from splitting the country into two main zones – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska – the Dayton Accords essentially provides an over-representation for the differing interest groups. As was outlined in a European Commission Conference 17 years ago, Bosnia had three presidents, 13 prime ministers, 14 parliaments, 147 ministers and 700 parliamentarians. If that is still the case, it is all for population of only around 3.2 million, and all dictated by ethnic quotas. In effect, it undermines the very sovereignty of Bosnia and ensures it could never be truly unified under this current system.
The Dayton Accords were, after all, only meant to be a temporary move to cease the conflict and bandage the wounds to stop the bleeding. It was never meant – at least under any reasonable logic from the Bosniak side – to be a long-term or permanent solution. One of the most recent criticisms of Dayton in this regard came from Erdogan, who stated at a news conference with his Croatian counterpart, Zoran Milanovic, in Zagreb that "if it is asked where this distress in Bosnia comes from, I think it comes from Dayton. Unfortunately, Dayton could not be an agreement aiming for a solution in Bosnia-Herzegovina."
Russia directly benefits from this current dysfunctional system and uses it to maintain its hold on the region, not only through the afore-mentioned use of local players and sympathisers on the ground, but also through the fact that it still sits on the 'Peace Implementation Council' which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Accords. That gives Moscow a clear legal basis, under international law, to maintain some form of diplomatic influence and to have a direct say in how Bosnia is governed in its present unsovereign way.
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As Samir Beharic, Research Officer at The Balkan Forum and Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States told Middle East Monitor, the Dayton agreement "is both a curse and a blessing for Bosnia and its people. It may have ended the war, but politicians use it mainly as a platform for ethno-nationalist rhetoric, constant threats of secession and warmongering."
The Russia link was also seen earlier this year, he said, when President of the Croat nationalist HDZ, Dragan Čović, joined the pro-Russian Bosnian Serb MPs in voting against Bosnia and Herzegovina sanctioning Moscow and aligning with the EU in its foreign and security policy. "Russia will nothing but exploit the scenario in which the Serb and Croat nationalists are widening the ethnic rifts in the country," Beharic stressed.
Recalling that the "Russian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Igor Kalbukhov, recently threatened Bosnia and Herzegovina with Ukrainian scenario in case the country decides to join NATO", he said that the actions of Dodik and other pro-Russian figures are a "well-coordinated activity aimed at dismantling Bosnia and Herzegovina, and destabilising the whole region", rather than simple 'inflammatory rhetoric'.
While western nations have been focusing – understandably – on Ukraine and the ongoing conflict, they have largely forgotten or overlooked the efforts Russia is conducting in the Western Balkans. Despite the US ambassador to Bosnia recently acknowledging the issue and reiterating that Washington and the West "are not going to leave [Bosnia-Herzegovina] to Russia", as well as other ambassadors stating that the presence of the EU and NATO in the region is important for its stability, they have still largely allowed the Kremlin to fill the void in the region and encourage the divisions in Bosnia.
Beharic urged the need for "more attention by the key actors in the West, who have been appeasing Russian puppets in the Balkans for far too long. Now is the time for the USA, UK and the EU to counter the malign influence of Russia, that has filled the void in the Balkans created by lack of engagement of external actors from the West."
READ: Bosnia and Herzegovina's regional challenges
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.