On Oct. 7, Bosnia will hold its most contentious and divisive elections since the war that killed 100,000 people in the 1990s. The risk of state disintegration in the immediate aftermath is real and would involve significant violence, given the stakes for political leaders and the latitude for miscalculation. In addition, Russia, which sees the Western Balkans — and Bosnia in particular — as a theater where it can challenge the West, is steadily amplifying its influence. By contrast, the West’s weak posture invites a disaster. A calamity can still be averted, but perhaps for not much longer.

The U.S. and European investment in Bosnia is considerable. Twenty-three years ago, NATO concluded its first major “out of area” operation there, striking Bosnian Serb military targets two months after the July 1995 massacre at Srebrenica that had killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. International courts have repeatedly ruled the Srebrenica massacre an act of genocide.

The American-led military action enabled the diplomacy that yielded the Dayton Peace Accords, and U.S. troops were the backbone of a NATO peacekeeping force that entered Bosnia in the aftermath, climbing to a peak strength of 54,000 troops. The force’s mandate entitled it to undertake whatever actions were required to preserve a “safe and secure environment.” That mandate remains, legally, unchanged. At the end of 2004, after nearly a decade of progress in Bosnia and the wider Western Balkans, the mission was taken on by a European Union force (EUFOR), with provisions for NATO backup if needed. Politically, the international community also has long provided an overseer, the “High Representative,” with varying degrees of authority over time.

Although the EU took the lead international role in Bosnia more than a decade ago, the Dayton peace has an inescapable “Made in America” stamp on it.  Given the advantages of peace for more than two decades since, collapse and the return of conflict would damage American and European credibility and inevitably generate pressure for a forceful response.

Contributing to the instability is the substantially deteriorated environment in Bosnia and across the region, as well as geopolitically, over the past 14 years. Within Bosnia, top-down ethnic separatism, led by political leaders with wide latitude to dispense patronage and generate fear, has led the country to the edge of collapse. It would have happened sooner were it not for Western taxpayers effectively renting social peace for them through credits from international financial institutions to stave off the risks of instability that have only grown in recent years.

Dodik’s Independence Push

The divisions sown by those leaders have escalated tensions dramatically. The key spoiler has been Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two “entities” established by the Dayton agreement. Since coming to power half a year prior to general elections in 2006, Dodik espoused an assertive nationalism. He both hollowed-out state institutions and insisted with increasing stridence – and intermittent but increasing support from neighboring Serbia — that Republika Srpska should declare independence. Should Bosnia disintegrate, it will not be peaceful.  The violence likely would metastasize quickly, involving not only Serbia but also NATO member Croatia, both of them previously predatory neighbors.

The Russia factor is another contributor to instability. Increasing political ties have morphed into security connections between police forces of the RS and Russia, and plans are underway for a new Russian-sponsored Orthodox church in Banja Luka to commemorate ties. Late last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Dodik in the RS capital Banja Luka, and travelled to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. He struck a surprisingly emollient tone and expressed support for the Dayton peace agreement. But the subtext, based on Russia’s record, was that any endorsement would be on Dodik’s grounds, meaning without the guardrails of an empowered High Representative or EUFOR. (The Kremlin regularly supports Dodik diplomatically and directly encouraged him to act on his separatist tendencies immediately after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in March 2014. Dodik followed up within two months by opposing an extension of EUFOR.)

Considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tendency to put the West on the back foot with a daring move, Bosnia’s strategic vulnerability is striking. EUFOR has been anemic for years, with fewer than 600 troops for a country of 3.8 million and formidable mountain ranges. Challenges to the peace would require the deployment of “over the horizon” EU or NATO reserves that likely would take days, possibly weeks, to arrive, depending on the circumstances. That’s delayed reaction, not deterrence.

Worse yet, military experts deem EUFOR incapable of securing its own Sarajevo base, let alone the nearby airport that would be needed for any arriving reinforcements. This is a deterrence failure the West has yet to pay for. Putin could, more than theoretically, invest forces via Serbia to create facts on the ground and provide a security blanket for Dodik’s separatism.

Even more ominously, since the U.N. Security Council renews the mandate every November, Russia conceivably could veto EUFOR’s extension, as its 2014 abstention indicated.  Were this to occur, the EU (and NATO) would have to decide whether to maintain the force at all, based the obligation conferred by Dayton.

Internal Volatility

Even aside from the very real Russia factor, Bosnia is highly volatile. The potential for joint action by Dodik, who is running for the Bosnian Serb seat on the three-headed state presidency, and his Bosnian Croat ally Dragan Čović, the incumbent and favorite for re-election to the Croat seat, is all too clear: they could passively immobilize the state after the election simply by not convening.

Čović has the backing of Croatia, a member of NATO and the EU that has pushed aside its post-war moderation with an increasingly strident nationalist-populist government. Once a crisis emerges, the potential is considerable for the EU and NATO to be stifled by a handful of increasingly illiberal member states.

However, such a scenario can still be prevented. Reinforcement of EUFOR presently requires no permission from the U.N. Security Council or Bosnian authorities. To ensure deterrent capability, former senior NATO and EU officers assess that a full brigade would be necessary. Clearly, that would take time to fully deploy. But the West could make a down payment on such a commitment, sending a message that neither widespread violence nor attempts to dismember the state will be tolerated – and as a bonus, deter Russian military moves.  This would involve three steps:

  • Introduce substantial lead elements through the NATO-specification runway in the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla, where U.S. troops were once based.
  • Monitor and defend Bosnian airspace from there.
  • Ensure that potential multi-ethnic flashpoints such as the cities of Brčko and Mostar have deterrent force on hand as soon as possible.

Should the U.S. and Germany agree to jointly pursue this course, several other NATO members, most notably the U.K. and Canada, likely would offer fulsome support to reach full brigade strength. Russia would surely object, and perhaps cast a veto in November. But at least some of the reinforcements would already be in place. Establishing a credible deterrent presence would limit the options of destabilizing actors from both within and outside Bosnia.

The situation in Bosnia and the Western Balkans has been allowed to deteriorate dangerously, despite tens of billions invested over 20-plus years to ensure peace and allow for progress. The amount the U.S. spends in Afghanistan annually, $45 billion, dwarfs this whole account – with arguably more meager results.

It is a question of first-mover advantage and area denial in Bosnia. The U.S. and the EU now have the latitude to act. They may not be able to keep it.

IMAGE: A woman mourns over an open grave before the mass funeral for 136 newly-identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the 20th anniversary of the atrocity in July 2015. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)