Russia vetoing EUFOR in Bosnia may not be a bad thing

Putin may try to destabilise the Western Balkans by ending EUFOR’s mandate, but that may lead to a NATO comeback to the region.

A member of European Forces (EUFOR) stands in front of the Bosnia and Herzegovina and European Union flags during Change of Command Ceremony in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
A member of European Forces (EUFOR) stands in front of the Bosnia and Herzegovina and EU flags during Change of Command Ceremony in Sarajevo on March 28, 2017 [File: Reuters/Dado Ruvic]

On November 3, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) members will gather to discuss extending the mandate of Operation Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under this name, the European Union has maintained a force, known as EUFOR, in the Balkan country since 2004 to help maintain peace after the end of the Bosnian war.

Amid the war in Ukraine, there are concerns that Russia, a permanent UNSC member, may decide to act as a spoiler and veto the extension. Its aim may be to put more pressure on the EU and the US to stop supporting Ukrainian resistance to its military aggression.

While on the surface such a move may seem like a dangerous precedent that could destabilise Bosnia and by extension the rest of the Western Balkans, a Russian veto of EUFOR may actually turn out to be a good thing for the country.

Failure to protect

When Bosnians think of their security needs today, they often consider what happened during the war and the genocide.

In early July 1995, commander of the Bosnian Serb rebel forces Ratko Mladić launched his attack on the UN-designated safe area of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. For the previous three years, Srebrenica and its defenders had resisted repeated attacks, protecting the thousands of Bosniaks who had fled the advancing Serb forces and found refuge there.

Mladić and his troops marched into Srebrenica on July 11 and before TV cameras, he promised “a revenge on the Turks”, referring to Bosniaks. Fleeing the marauding Serb forces, thousands of Bosniaks sought refuge in a UN base in Potočari near Srebrenica, hoping the Dutch battalion stationed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission (UNPROFOR) there would protect them.

But it did not. The refugees were handed over to Mladić’s troops. The men and boys were separated from the women and summarily executed. Seeing the writing on the wall, thousands of Bosniaks tried breaking out of the siege in an effort to reach Bosnian government-controlled territory. Bosnian Serb forces shelled them and conducted mass executions of those who they captured.

The Bosnian genocide taught Bosnians a lesson: not to trust the Europeans for protection and not to rely on international institutions, such as the UN. Self-sufficiency and self-reliance needed to be established, but until then, the country needed strong protection from foreign forces.

That came in December 1995 in the form of NATO’s Operation Joint Endeavour launched as part of the Dayton Accords. It deployed a multinational force of 60,000 troops – of which 20,000 were American – to implement the peace deal.

Unlike previous or subsequent US interventions, there was no single casualty as a result of hostile fire. The US-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s have been seen as the most successful in the post-Cold War period.

From late 1995 to 2004, this robust military presence, and particularly the deployment of US troops, ensured Bosnian security and stability, which allowed for state-building. Then, in 2004, the Bush Administration decided to hand over the mission to the European Union and its EUFOR. At the time, a large number of US troops was enmeshed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bosnia was considered safe.

This withdrawal from Bosnia had long-term implications for the country’s security.

Unreliable force

The absence of US troops left a security vacuum. All actors in Bosnia knew full well that the US presence embodied a commitment to a functioning Bosnia. Without it, the US influence was bound to wane and those who opposed a stable Bosnia would be empowered.

In fact, two years later, in 2006, hardline Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik came to power in Republika Srpska, one of the two entities established by the Dayton Accords, and has been an undisputed leader in this part of the country since. He has consistently undermined the unified Bosnian state institutions​ and functions and along with other Bosnian politicians pursuing self-interest, have sabotaged the building of a strong Bosnian army that could defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.

Furthermore, the forces the EU deployed to substitute the NATO continent have been inadequate. To many Bosniaks, these troops brought back memories of UNPROFOR, the UN Protection Force which did not protect.

Today, 18 years after EUFOR took over, Bosnians are still not feeling safe. Fears about Bosnia’s security have been on the rise since Dodik undertook serious political and legislative steps towards secession in 2021. In response, the US and the UK imposed sanctions on the separatist politician. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dodik, who sided with Moscow, said his plans for secession were put on hold.

Another Russia sympathiser, Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Čović, has also said he is seeking “territorial reorganisation” of the country. Many analysts in Bosnia concur that Čović’s ultimate objective is to split the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the two entities within the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and establish a “third entity” – essentially, a Bosnian Croat version of Republika Srpska. In pursuing this goal, Čović is backed by Croatia’s President Zoran Milanović, who has voiced his support for Croat self-rule in Bosnia.

With its clients – Dodik and Čović – in place, Russia may seek to destabilse the Western Balkans. One way to do that may be to veto the UNSC’s decision to extend the EUFOR’s mandate.

Sense of false security

Many have seen EUFOR as a reassuring presence in the country. However, EUFOR in Bosnia currently has just 1,100 troops from 20 countries. This is a far cry from the overwhelming force of 60,000 deployed to Bosnia in the immediate aftermath of the war. In other words, today’s EUFOR is unsuited to deal with any real security challenge. It has claimed success so far because it has – thankfully – never been tested and in fact, provides a false sense of security.

In this context, Russia’s veto of EUFOR may not be all bad news. Such a step would be a clear sign to Washington and NATO to pay more attention to the Balkans. An end to EUFOR could mean the resurrection of the NATO mission in Bosnia, which would definitely be a boost to the country’s security and stave off secessionist ambitions.

It is quite telling that Dodik went to Moscow in September to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin not to veto the EUFOR mandate renewal. He may also be worried about a much larger peacekeeping deployment, especially US-led NATO redeployment, were the European forces to go.

It is clear that the way forward for pro-Bosnian political leaders is to step up cooperation with NATO and tirelessly advocate in Washington and Brussels for a speedy accession to the Alliance. That should be the primary goal of the next Bosnian government.

But even if a NATO deployment does not materialise, EUFOR’s demise should not be lamented. Its role in Bosnia has been overrated. A weak foreign force deployed ostensibly to maintain security in the country can adversely affect the judgement of Bosnian decision-makers and the general population. For my generation of Bosniaks, it is far more preferable to have no illusions than to have a false sense of security.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.