Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine, Same Aggressor Different Name6 min read
As Bosnia and Herzegovina mark the 30th anniversary of its independence, Bosnians across the globe look on in abject horror at the events unfolding in Ukraine. For many, the images of urban warfare waged in the heart of Europe have re-opened the never fully healed wounds of their own wartime trauma. Indeed, as the invasion of Ukraine entered its second week, signs pointing to the possibility of a protracted conflict led one senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to remark in a closed meeting that Ukraine was spiraling “towards something that looks like Bosnia.”
The similarities and connections between the two countries, however, are not merely relegated to diachronic notions of the past. For Bosnia and Herzegovina has long served as a backdoor to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, with Russia using its client state, Republika Srpska, to both train and recruit mercenaries to fight in the Donbas. And as Bosnians, both at home and within the diaspora, gathered earlier this month to commemorate their hard-won independence, activists swathed in blue and yellow (the colors of both the Bosnian and Ukrainian flags) called for solidarity with Ukraine, warning that Russia’s aggression towards the country could have implications for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s already fragile sovereignty. The fear is that Russia’s official recognition of Ukraine’s breakaway regions will have a domino effect — that Bosnian-Serb President Milorad Dodik’s calls for secession, emboldened by Kremlin support, will lead to renewed civil conflict in the country.
Same colors, same aggressor
The sound of air raid sirens ringing out over Kyiv, videos of women and children loaded onto buses forced to leave their men behind, and the pictures of Soviet-era Khrushchyovka apartment buildings pockmarked by mortar shells are causing many Bosnians to relive their past war trauma. Alema Muharemović, who worked as a translator during the Bosnian War and who now lives in Germany, says that watching the news out of Ukraine is triggering her PTSD. “Looking at videos of bombing [sic] literally drains my energy… I have constant pain in my chest and I am constantly so so upset-on alert let me say… People who like war should have it at home every single day!”
Such feelings of anger, empathy, and a shared experience is partly what is driving Bosnians’ solidarity with Ukraine — the other is realpolitik. For while Bosnians living in the Federation see the war in Ukraine as a repeat of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s onslaught against the country, their Bosnian-Serb counterparts see Putin’s actions as giving the United States and its allies in Europe a taste of their own medicine. NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999 has oft been cited by scholars, such as Dimitar Bechev and Michel Eltchaninoff, as a key moment in the crystallization of Putin’s worldview. In fact, the war in Ukraine has accelerated concerns over the fate of the Dayton Accords.
Russia’s soft-power foreign policy in the Western Balkans has long been a hindrance to post-conflict reintegration in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as it has sought to exploit nationalist-driven political divides for its own diplomatic gains. Russia’s main foreign policy goal vis-à-vis Bosnia and Herzegovina is to prevent the country from joining both the EU and NATO by playing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three ethnic groups (and their corresponding political parties) against one another. In other words, Russia “is prepared to do anything to…ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina remains an ethnically fragmented basket case in the heart of the Balkans.”
Over the past decade, Russia has successfully built and funded a network of ultra-nationalist groups in the Western Balkans who are prepared to carry out covert political operations on behalf of the Kremlin. Groups such as the infamous motorcycle gang the Night Wolves, Srbska Čast, and the Balkan Cossack Army train and recruit paramilitary personnel creating a direct pipeline of patriotically motivated dobrovoltsy (volunteer fighters) from the Balkans into the Donbas. Volunteers willing to fight against “globalization and liberal influence destroying traditional systems of national and human values… against trans-national deceit.” This staunch rejection of western liberal democratic values is encompassed by the concept of Russkiy mir, an ideology built upon the conflation of ethnonationalism, religion, and politics, which is a driving factor in Russian revanchism both in Ukraine and the Western Balkans.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated, semi-autonomous Republika Srpska, Russkiy mir borders on Russophilia — as it is closely connected to the region’s own nationalist, revanchist mythology of a Greater Serbia and its separatist movement to gain independence from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk only serves to intensify this movement. In 2014, not only did Dodik back Crimea’s referendum for secession, but he also equated Crimea with Republika Srpska at a press conference with then Russian Ambassador Botsan Kharchenko seated by his side.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Dodik’s most recent actions of quitting key federal institutions rang out as just another hollow secessionist threat. Just one in a long line of rhetorical posturing with which Russia was always only too happy to play along, but for which its support was not meant to go beyond the level of soft power — until now. ‘Ukraine’ has exploded previously held beliefs regarding Putin’s foreign policy endgame. No longer can we be sure that Putin is not willing to risk direct military engagement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor that his client state’s threats are merely hollow. Much like in Ukraine, the military build-up in Republika Srpska has happened under the radar. For while Dayton stipulates that Republika Srpska is not allowed to have its own army, Russia has been training and arming RS police since 2015. Dodik, in his usual disregard for the peace treaty, defended the arms purchase stating that “for 20 years we didn’t have the right to equip the police, now we have decided to do it.”
The West Awakens
The West’s policies towards the Western Balkans post-Crimea have been on autopilot; their focus in respect to Russia, ironically, on Ukraine. This lack of engagement by the EU, US, and NATO has created a security vacuum in the region – one that Russia has both filled and exploited to the detriment of the continuation of the Bosnian state.
No more. The West is beginning to wake up to the consequences caused by its decade-long sleep. In the wake of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, EUFOR (European Union Force) announced that it was deploying an additional 500 troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a precautionary measure stating that “the deterioration of the security situation internationally has the potential to spread instability to Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Additionally, NATO, in an unprecedented move, has announced support for Bosnia and Herzegovina citing the risk of possible Russian aggression.
However, while re-engagement is needed to stop a renewed civil conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or worse, the creation of a Balkan front to the war in Ukraine, it is imperative that the West does not vilify either the Russian or the Bosnian-Serb people. Doing so would only add fodder to claims of Russo- and Serbophobia; thus, playing into existing narratives of moral victimhood that would only serve to further escalate the violence in both Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina.