Since Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine four months ago, the West’s democracies have been compelled to reassess numerous presumptions about the bounds of the possible in European security. Given the seismic shock delivered by this Russian aggression, many hitherto immovable objects moved with considerable speed: halting Nord Stream 2; delivery of heavy weapons (though still insufficient) to Ukraine for its self-defense from previously reluctant European Union and NATO members; the basing of forces from westerly NATO members in the Baltic/northern flank; even the prospect of Swedish and Finnish membership in the Alliance and the EU’s likely offer of candidacy to Ukraine. Given the context and the danger posed by Russia’s belligerent and irredentist posture, the upcoming NATO summit in Madrid on June 28-30 will be as consequential a meeting of Western allies as any since the Cold War.

And yet in the Western Balkans – NATO’s southern flank, where the West has been the dominant constellation of actors for more than two decades — very little has changed in terms of U.S., EU, and U.K. policy. Without a doubt they are paying increased policy attention to the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina is even on the agenda at the summit. But the basic outlines of the policy remain on bureaucratic autopilot.

Review and recalibration were overdue before Feb. 24, as storm clouds of ethnic partition, corruption, and nefarious alignments with Russia and China gathered. Now that light ought to be blinking red. Just last week, Bosnian Serb nationalist leader and Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency Milorad Dodik, who has for 16 years fanned the flames of separatism and last year radically accelerated his pursuit of it, met Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, where Russian leader thanked Dodik for preventing Bosnia from joining Western sanctions against Russia by impeding consensus as a member of the country’s tripartite presidency.

The Western Balkans is a region where the transatlantic democracies have the greatest potential range of leverage and the most potent diplomatic and military tools to not only prevent and deter violence and regression, but to create an environment conducive to organic, democratically driven progress. There is no place else on Earth where the EU and NATO have such power. And finally, the West is united as never since the end of the Cold War.

But the West’s collective lowest-common-denominator policy toward the region has been one of pacification: that it simply not generate problems. The EU has largely set the tone here, which – despite the tectonic shift of Russia’s assault – remains basically the same in policy, as demonstrated again yesterday with the chaotic and inconclusive EU-Western Balkans Leaders Meeting in Brussels.  As a result, the most reactionary elements in each of these countries perpetually seize the initiative – and increasingly set the agenda. Indeed, generating threats to the peace is central to their business model of Western Balkans politics. And the most disruptive geopolitical adversary of Western democracy – a revanchist Russia under Putin – has considerable purchase among these reactionary elements. But attaining even that low bar for the foreseeable future will now require much greater commitment.

NATO’s Role: a `Safe and Secure Environment’

Nowhere is this more potent and dangerous than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 30 years ago, a war began that ultimately killed 100,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. It left a once integrated society fractured ethnically, which was indeed the aim of the war’s perpetrators. The Dayton Peace Agreement, brokered by the United States 27 years ago, created a framework intended to help Bosnia with its reconstruction, democratization, and – over time – societal reintegration. As a number of us have written previously for Just Security, this did gain traction up to a point; after some considerable progress, EU enlargement – not even on the menu in 1995 for Bosnia or the rest of the region – was supposed to impel Bosnia’s politicians to complete the task.

From the outset – in the Dayton Agreement’s Annex 1A – NATO was granted the role of ensuring a “safe and secure environment” and deterring threats to the peace, either from erstwhile combatants or from signatories of Dayton who had been predatory neighbors, Serbia and Croatia. Peacekeeping is both about reassurance of the broader population and intimidation of potential initiators of violence. Fewer than 10 years after the war, at the end of 2004, the prevailing assessment was that so much progress had been achieved – and that this progress was durable – that it was safe for NATO to hand over the deterrent role to the EU, while maintaining a supportive connection (and if necessary, reinforcement lifeline) through “Berlin-plus” arrangements, established to allow the Alliance to back up the EU when it fields its own missions.

But from 2007 onward, this new EU force, EUFOR, hemorrhaged troops and national contingents, well below the brigade strength (~5,000 troops) recommended by a series of deputy NATO commanders (DSACEURs) to an ebb of about 600 troops. Officials in some NATO capitals, including Washington, increasingly recognized this weakness, and finally nearly doubled EUFOR’s strength, drawing on designated EU reserves, immediately following Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February.

While the force remains well below optimal brigade strength, Bosnia’s Serb and Croat nationalist politicians predictably cried foul at any increase, likely fearing it would reduce the leverage and freedom of maneuver that they have long wielded to undermine the country’s nascent institutions. This is particularly crucial in an election year, as these national leaders have so often used fear to maintain their positions of power, and the strong tools that the Dayton agreement provided to counter such moves, such as the executive authority of the High Representative, have been weakened over the years.

In their June 17 St. Petersburg meeting, Dodik claimed that Putin would approve the extension of EUFOR, though without reinforcement or a wider footprint. Dodik has been Russia’s most valuable player in the Balkans since even before Putin shifted into aggressive disruptor gear in the region after discovering in 2014 that he could get away with the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea. Ties between Russia and Dodik, with the Bosnian Serb entity he effectively still controls, Republika Srpska (RS), are played up by both sides. Russia’s ambassador in Bosnia, Igor Kalabukhov, for example, openly threatened Bosnia should it pursue NATO membership by alluding to the consequences of Ukraine’s pursuit of the same objective. And Dodik has been quite open about the war in Ukraine (he uses Russia’s propaganda term “special military operation”) slowing his independence drive, which he had just accelerated in December with a vote in the RS parliament to break ties with Bosnian institutions and the tax system.

Potential Russian Machinations in Bosnia

While Western sanctions and air transportation prohibitions against Russia since Feb. 24 have severely restricted the ability of Russians to fly to and from Europe, Air Serbia has doubled the number of commercial flights between St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Belgrade. It also flies regularly to the de facto Republika Srpska capital Banja Luka. Russia also has used commercial aviation to move special operations forces, a tactic the Soviet Union used against the Czechoslovaks in 1968.

Even a small number of Russian troops in Bosnia would change the strategic equation. And, as Russia’s war against Ukraine slogs on, the premium is high for Putin if he can pressure – or preferably humiliate – the West in a country where the United States and European democracies ostensibly hold most sway. The Russians don’t even need to be involved directly on the ground to prod Dodik to act precipitously.

A year ago at the United Nations, Russia demonstrated its will to act on Bosnia. In conjunction with China, now its de facto ally in the Ukraine war, Russia attempted to torpedo the appointment of the international High Representative, the final authority on the ground for interpreting and enforcing the Dayton Peace Agreement. Fortunately, the High Representative is selected by the ad hoc Peace Implementation Council, on which Russia sits but does not have veto rights. But Russia can wield its veto in the U.N. Security Council when the EUFOR mandate comes up for annual renewal every autumn, as it will again this year. Last November, Moscow (and Beijing) successfully wielded this leverage when France held the chair of the Security Council, to prevent High Representative Christian Schmidt from presenting his semiannual report to the council in person.  The resolution extending the EUFOR mandate – and maintaining it at anemic strength – only avoided a Russian veto at the cost of not even mentioning the High Representative and his office, as well as the deterioration of the situation as he reported, a feature of previous resolutions.

Given the precipitous decline in East-West relations since last November over the war in Ukraine, it would be prudent to plan for a Russian veto this autumn. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly mentioned Bosnia as a country that needs shoring-up of its security. NATO retains legal responsibility for a “safe and secure environment” in the country, explicit in Dayton – and as “reinsurer” of EUFOR since 2004. After an April meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Stoltenberg said they agreed “that we should also help other partners to strengthen their resilience and shore up their ability to defend themselves, including Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” and he added, “For Bosnia and Herzegovina, we could develop a new defence capacity-building package.”

Alliance members could make an affirmative decision in Madrid to address Bosnia’s security vulnerabilities by reinforcing the current force to requisite brigade strength between now and the Oct. 2 elections, including troops from other NATO members (which the EU can request as support via the Berlin-plus mechanism).  Once strengthened and deployed with a wide footprint, including in Brčko, the deterrent would once again be operationally credible.

This would position the Alliance and its EU partners politically and operationally to insulate peace enforcement in Bosnia from Russian wrecking. Maintaining a NATO force should Russia veto an EUFOR extension would be legally valid under Annex 1A. Demonstration of the will to maintain the deterrent force should Moscow cast a veto could perhaps even deter one. Russia, Republika Srpska, and Serbia would decry this move as illegal, of course. But the argument is there to be made; strength on the ground is the key to credible deterrence and “area denial” to external actors. Annex 1A also addresses NATO’s ability to control the airspace.

Lowest Common Denominator

The matter is finally on NATO’s radar. But while it has garnered attention, the lowest common denominator among allies at present seems to be to just hold the NATO option as a fallback, without active reinforcement before the U.N. Security Council vote in the fall. Some EU member states – particularly France – and institutions also would view the shift from EU to NATO as undesirable – even a humiliation. And then there is electorally humbled French President Emmanuel Macron’s injunction to not humiliate Russia. There is a danger that Paris would prefer to concede to Russia a date certain for closing the Office of the High Representative or to limit its activity, rather than NATO’s taking over the EU’s longest-running security and defense operation. Another idea reportedly being raised behind the scenes diplomatically is to seek an invitation from the tripartite Bosnian Presidency to continue the EUFOR mission. But even if successful, this would constitute a dangerous precedent: giving those whose actions the force is there to deter a vote on an obligation specified in an international peace treaty.

It is significant to note that Dodik, a persistent critic of EUFOR since Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, has recently changed his tune to favor EUFOR. This ought to be seen in an ominous light. Dodik wants Russia – and himself – to have a say in the West’s deterrent posture in Bosnia, including where any force can be posted. His statement following his meeting with Putin — that Moscow would permit the mission’s continuation but not its reinforcement — indicates this. He and Moscow are particularly animated against the prospect of NATO forces in Brčko, which separates the two halves of Republika Srpska. That is precisely where they ought to be stationed for many reasons, including that this is the strategic circuit breaker of secession and wider conflict in Bosnia. Dodik projects particular venom at the United States and the U.K., in the knowledge that these NATO members are the most likely to curtail his secession ambitions and the profitable business model he built around them.

The Madrid NATO summit this week is the right time to for the United States to lead its allies in confronting the risks and reducing the vulnerability of Bosnia to internal and external destabilization.  In so doing, it would send a clear message that Bosnia is off limits for Russian action – and for any actors in Bosnia who might seek to generate popular fear. This is crucial in its own right, but particularly useful to accomplish prior to the Oct. 2 general elections, in which fear and polarization are presently the main course for Bosnia’s nationalist kleptocrats.

By deploying NATO forces to Bosnia this summer, Russia may potentially demur on casting its veto.  But this is only possible if it is clear to Moscow that a veto would only boomerang and demonstrate Russia’s impotence. Preparation for a U.K.-led NATO force at brigade strength, with an American battalion posted to Brčko, would be the ideal bitter medicine for Russia and Bosnian ethnocrats alike.

IMAGE: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg inspects an honor guard unit of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Armed Forces, during a welcoming ceremony as part of his trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina to discuss the country’s membership in the alliance, in Sarajevo, on February 2, 2017. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)