As Ukraine faces down a mounting threat of a Russian incursion, Nato has reinforced its Eastern borders in Romania and Estonia. There is a chorus of international voices calling on Putin to stand down the 100,000 troops he has stationed on the border, and we are being forced to reckon with our own complacency.
But Putin’s efforts to weaken Europe and sow divisions do not start and end with Ukraine.
European democracies have failed to ensure stability in Ukraine, and their dependency on Russian gas has made their position precarious and impeded their ability to intervene. As leaders seek to salvage stability in Ukraine, they must also ensure the same carelessness does not allow Putin’s destabilising power to reach further into the continent.
Bosnia is another country, deeper in Europe, that sits under Putin’s gaze. It is also a place where Moscow’s interference has been left unchallenged for too long.
Bosnia is held together by what is known as the Dayton treaty, which laid the foundations for a complex political bureaucracy with three presidents: a Bosnian Serb, a Bosnian Croat and a Bosnian Muslim. In this way, with two administrative entities, there has been peace since the Bosnian War ended in 1995. Thanks to Russia’s influence, one of those presidents, Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb, is threatening to secede from the treaty.
The repercussions would be vast and tragic. It would split Bosnia in two and allow the army responsible for the worst atrocities of the 1990s to form once again, the same army who executed 8,000 civilians in a matter of days at Srebrenica; a genocide that Dodik claims is a “fabricated myth”.
The US has imposed sanctions on Dodik. But as long as he has powerful friends in the cabal of authoritarian leaders – Vladimir Putin is chief among them – the impact of these are limited. Putin has already signalled his support for Dodik and against the machinations and conceptions of “the Liberal West”. His support brings Bosnia closer to war, even as bodies continue to be exhumed from the mass graves of thirty years ago.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine is the result of European leaders failing to take the Russian threat seriously. When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, there was some feeling that allowing Putin to occupy several regions of Eastern Ukraine would satiate his appetite. That was wishful thinking and we must not apply the same logic in Bosnia.
Bosnia is a politically complex and socially scarred country, but it shares a border with two Nato member states. Even if European leaders are unwilling to grasp Bosnia’s geopolitical importance, allowing Putin a foothold of influence in Europe would give him an unmissable opportunity to bloody the noses of liberal European democracies.
Bosnia has also been lobbying to become a Nato member state itself, divided between those who want to move closer to Western democracies and those like Dodik who press for alignment with authoritarian powers like Russia.
Russia has already threatened an escalation of hostilities should the country take a definitive step towards membership. As recently as 2021, the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo stated that Bosnia becoming a Nato member would constitute a “hostile act” that Russia would “have to react to”.
Europe must not shrink in the face of these threats. The past decade has also seen Russia sponsor cyberattacks, sanction political assassinations on European soil and intensify violence in the Syrian Civil War.
Appeasement will not and has not worked in the face of an aggressive, jingoistic Russian foreign policy relentlessly and intelligently deployed by the Kremlin. Instead, the policy that Europe must pursue in Bosnia is the opposite of appeasement. It must work to ready Bosnia for Nato membership with those of its leaders who are receptive.
The liberal democracies of Europe have two responsibilities, one more immediate than the other. First, the EU must follow the example of the US and UK and place sanctions on Dodik, making a clear statement that the international democratic community is united in not allowing Dodik to carve up Bosnia and resurrect the violence of the 1990s. The second is a re-engaged Nato commitment to actively prepare Bosnia for membership. On all fronts, Putin must understand that appeasement is over.