Ukraine crisis prompts need for urgency on Western Balkans

The complacency of the West has been directly challenged by continued instability in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. What is indisputable is that Vladimir Putin has witnessed this several times over the past two decades.

The Western Balkans could, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, once again be the focus of EU and wider European concern. A war on two fronts now comes into view with the secessionist moves of the Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik, sanctioned by the US on January 5, 2022 and backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Strategically, this is a potential nightmare for the EU and the West as the Ukraine disaster unfolds. Dodik’s actions in recent years have directly threatened the terms of the 1995 Dayton Accords. There is the clear issue facing the West that anti-Western nationalists in Serbia who naturally side with Vladimir Putin will want to exact a level of revenge for NATO’s 1999 Kosovo intervention.

Bosnia’s worst political crisis since the 1990s is already well afoot. Republika Srpska (the pro-Russia Bosnian Serb entity led by Dodik which forms part of the tripartite government of BiH) has seceded in all but name from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Dodik is refusing to back a law that would officially recognise the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide in BiH. Now there is the clear risk that Republika Srpska could take one step further and secede fully, which would trigger the clear and present danger for the West of Vladimir Putin’s Russia achieving even greater influence in the Balkans.

Milorad Dodik is already backed by Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, who has given $100 million to Republika Srpska in support responding to US sanctions against his political ally. Russia has historically and continues to back Republika Srpska and its leadership.

Populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has continued to stand against Dodik. He agreed in a meeting in Washington D.C. in December 2021 with Richard Grenell (American former Special Envoy for Kosovo and the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue under President Trump) to help remove Dodik from the Bosnian presidency. These promises are unlikely to have significant impact on the potential danger however, as they have no credence or support from the international community. Moreover, Vučić expressed disdain at the US Treasury sanctions from January 5 and pledged that Serbia would not implement sanctions on Bosnian Serbs.

EU leaders are scrambling to try to resolve the tensions, but there is a risk that it could be a case of too little, too late as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominates hearts and minds as Europe’s #1 issue of the moment. This could play right into the hands of Republika Srpska leaders as they seek to subvert the already fragile stability of BiH. While it is unlikely Russian boots will appear on the ground in BiH, this risks descending into a conflict that could echo the dark days of the disintegration of the Yugoslav Republics in the 1990s.

The European Union announced on February 24 that it would be sending a further 500 troops to aid the 600 EUFOR peacekeeping troops already in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There is however, a continued weakness of EU leaders who continue to fail to produce actions that match their heavy handed talk. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief expressed grave concern earlier this week that ‘something might happen again in the Balkans’. This was echoed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg who repeated the need to help countries such as Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina ‘to pursue the path they have freely chosen’.

Despite calls from German officials in the EU as well as continued pressure on EU leaders to implement sanctions against Milorad Dodik and his regime for his pervasive aggression, concrete EU sanctions have yet to come to light. In time-honoured EU fashion, achieving the unanimous consent of all 27 Member States has been, once again, something of a pipe dream. In contrast, the response by President Biden’s administration has been swift and tough. On 5 January 2022 US Treasury’s OFAC imposed sanctions on Milorad Dodik and his personal media station. This was in response to what they referred to as ‘destabilising and corrupt actions’ – namely Dodik’s actions and rhetoric against other ethnic groups – in particular the Bosniak Muslims – in BiH.

Europe, NATO and the West need to approach the strategic challenges of the European continent with great care. After the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a number of nations in Eastern Europe bordering on Russia and Ukraine are likely to feel the heat of potential strife. Given Putin’s preference for dividing and conquering Europe by creating energy dependencies on Russia for oil and gas, political and economic support, and his jaundiced view (whether justified or not) of post-Berlin Wall Western intervention in Europe – his continued leadership of the Russian Federation poses a credible clear and present threat to Western interests.

Despite the self-inflicted damage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – with inevitable dire economic sanctions and further consequences as Europe pivots away from oil & gas and moves towards renewables and other viable, possibly temporary, energy sources, a run on the Russian Rouble, FDI outflows – Putin seems determined to stay the course. The West has to be vigilant and ready to offer a rapid response – not a given under the prevailing circumstances. Failure to do so could lead to a whole host of unfortunate, unintended consequences befalling the continent of Europe as it emerges wounded from the scars of the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply waiting for the Putin Administration to fall could be a fool’s errand – a more proactive, pre-emptive response will be required.

By TiffanyStewart