Bosnia as the new ‘battleground’ between NATO and Russia
Russia has been undermining Bosnia’s stability to keep the country out of NATO, analysts say.
Nine months after its general elections, Bosnia has still not formed a government – mainly due to disagreement in the tripartite presidency over NATO membership.
The country has been stuck at a crossroads since the world’s largest military alliance invited Bosnia in 2010 to join its Membership Action Plan (MAP), which would put it on track to joining the alliance.
Bosniak and Croat members say NATO membership would provide peace and stability in a country where, 25 years after the devastating war of the 1990s, tension continues to boil.
But Serb members such as Milorad Dodik, the current chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, remain staunchly against NATO membership since the military alliance had targeted Serb troops in 1995 in an attempt to halt the war and then in 1999 bombed Serbia to drive out Serbian forces from Kosovo.
In late May, Dodik blocked submitting the annual national programme to NATO, which would have activated MAP.
In June, he warned that unilateral steps taken towards NATO membership would mean the end of Bosnia.
The secessionist president – who has promised the Serb entity of Republika Srpska will split away from Bosnia – has been vetoing any initiative towards joining the military alliance for years.
And, according to analysts, he has been blocking Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic integration with the help of Russia.
Apart from Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, there are many more who are here 'unofficially'. The number of Russian citizens passing through Bosnia has also increased since early 2018.
They say Russia has been attempting to undermine stability in order to keep Bosnia out of NATO.
British historian Marko Attila Hoare says Russia sees the Balkans as a battleground where it can try to obstruct NATO and EU expansion.
“They have an interest in seeing these conflicts unresolved, in keeping the Kosovo-Serbia dispute unresolved, in keeping Bosnia unstable and the Macedonia-Greece conflict unresolved. That gives them a way of exerting influence,” Hoare told Al Jazeera.
From a broader perspective, the region seems to be firmly entrenched in the Western military and economic bloc.
The former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro are all NATO member states and North Macedonia is about to join as its 30th member.
In the rest of the Balkans, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania are also members of NATO.
The only three countries that have yet to join NATO are Bosnia, Kosovo (its UN status still pending) and Serbia.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had voiced his concerns in 2014 when he called NATO’s expansion to Bosnia, North Macedonia and Montenegro a “mistake, even a provocation in a way”.
After a coup plot engineered by 14 people including two Russian military intelligence officers failed to install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in Montenegro in 2016, and following attempts to sow discord in North Macedonia, the focus has shifted to Bosnia as the new centre of a turf war in the Balkans between NATO and Russia.
“They will double down in Bosnia, where Dodik has a veto on any move towards NATO, so there it would be hard for the Russians to lose,” Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies told Al Jazeera.
Backing nationalist political forces
Aside from Dodik, Russia has been supporting the ruling nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Croatia’s ruling party and its Bosnian HDZ party which calls for greater autonomy of Bosnia’s Croat population.
Over the years Dragan Covic, the nationalist leader of Bosnia’s HDZ party has repeatedly pushed for the creation of a third Croat entity, which has been rejected by the international community, Bosniaks and many Croats as well.
By pushing to change Bosnia’s election law, Croatia has regularly been accused of attempting to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty, a continuation of its irredentist aims pursued during the war.
In September 2018, a month before Bosnia’s general elections, independent Bosnian news website Zurnal reported that Russian intelligence was sponsoring electoral fraud to ensure that Dodik and Covic win.
Russian ambassador Petar Ivancov has spoken in favour of Covic’s position and has strongly opposed Bosnia’s path towards NATO.
Emir Suljagic, Bosnia’s former deputy minister of defence, told Al Jazeera that Russian ambassador Ivancov had told him personally in 2015 that while Russia sees some stabilising influence in Bosnia’s EU integration, “we see no perspective for your NATO membership”.
By supporting nationalists, Moscow aims to ensure that the country remains ethnically fragmented, analysts say.
“The Russia-Bosnian HDZ link is based on mutual interests. Russians support HDZ’s discriminatory electoral law proposal, and its view on Bosnia as a deeply-divided, almost ungovernable apartheid-like state,” said Ismail Cidic, president of the Bosnian Advocacy Center.
“On the other hand, the HDZ openly works on destabilisation of Bosnia’s NATO integration. This exceeds the usual level of cooperation. It is a dangerous partnership that may cause not only huge political issues, but also security and defence-related ones.”
In January 2018, tensions spiked following reports that a Russia-trained paramilitary force known as Serbian Honour was active in Bosnia, serving to back separatist Dodik, confirmed by Bosnia’s minister of security Dragan Mektic.
In recent years, numerous Russians have been declared security threats and banned from entering the country, including US-blacklisted Konstantin Malofeyeev who funds separatist activities in eastern Ukraine and is one of the main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea.
Malofeyeev was en route to a meeting with Dodik on May 30, 2018 when he was deported from the airport in Banja Luka, Bosnia, deemed a security threat.
A Bosnian intelligence officer, on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the country’s intelligence agency had seen an increase in Russian activity in the country following the failed coup d’etat in Montenegro.
“Apart from Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, there are many more who are here ‘unofficially’. The number of Russian citizens passing through Bosnia has also increased since early 2018,” he said.
If Russia can keep Bosnia permanently destabilised through its proxy relationships with the likes of Milorad Dodik, it can effectively destabilise the whole region
Political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic told Al Jazeera that Bosnia has gained in significance for Moscow following the events in Montenegro and North Macedonia as it remains the most important “hole” in NATO’s regional presence, especially given Belgrade’s avowedly anti-NATO position.
“It’s also significant because it is the strategic centre of the whole region. If Russia can keep Bosnia permanently destabilised through its proxy relationships with the likes of Milorad Dodik, it can effectively destabilise the whole region,” Mujanovic said.
“Those efforts are only further strengthened through Dodik’s presence on the state presidency, which has given him even further opportunities to maintain parallel security and diplomatic ties with Russia and its other proxies.”
Sputnik: a disinformation hub
Raskrinkavanje, a Bosnian, fact-checking platform, has flagged the Russian-owned, Serbian edition of Sputnik 36 times for disinformation published in 16 articles over the course of one year.
The website is a source of information for readers in Serbia and Republika Srpska and influential on social media.
In a report titled “Disinformation in the online sphere” published in April 2019, it found that several EU countries and especially NATO were presented in Sputnik’s articles as a threat to Serbs, Republika Srpska or Dodik.
Meanwhile, ahead of last year’s general election, analysts at Jane’s 360 news website, reported a sudden increase in activity by Twitter accounts promoting pro-Russian narratives while also advocating for separatism in Republika Srpska.
‘Untie Brussels’ hands’
A report published in January 2019 by the Russian International Affairs Council, which has Lavrov on its board of trustees, affirmed that Russia abandoning its interests in the Balkans, would “significantly worsen its situation in Europe”.
With the Balkans moving into the Euro-Atlantic realm of influence, this will “untie Brussels’ hands and open new opportunities for the European Union to expand eastward”, complicating Russia’s relations with many countries such as Turkey and China.
It would mean “a loss of standing in southeast Europe, which will limit room for action in the Mediterranean” and result in the EU and NATO “exerting even greater pressure on the Transcaucasian states and Belarus”. “Russia will lose a key area on its ‘playing field’, resulting in the shrinking space around its ‘scoring area,’ the report noted.
It recommended Russia to create and support political forces in the region that “would be oriented toward Moscow’s projects”, expand its media presence and increase investment in regional manufacturing companies.
Mujanovic told Al Jazeera that one could argue, if Russia loses Bosnia as it has lost Montenegro and North Macedonia, it will have lost the whole of the region even with Serbia and Kosovo still formally outside of NATO.
“For Bosnia, this is doubly precarious because the country’s complex constitutional order makes internal consensus difficult to achieve as it is. That delicate internal balance, or rather thereof, is being only further upset by the intrusions and interference operations Russia has been running in the country since 2014, but in particular since 2016.
“Worse, in a country that remains as volatile as Bosnia, any kind of significant shock to the country’s overall stability can quickly spiral out of control, even if such operations are intended only to be small scale pricks.
“In Bosnia and the Western Balkans even low-scale malign interference can have devastating consequences. And that reality, in turn, should deeply worry Brussels, Washington, and the whole of the Atlantic community.”