Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine has brought to the fore deep cleavages between pro-Western and pro-Russian voices across another part of Europe, too — the Western Balkans. Images coming out of Ukraine of atrocities by Vladimir Putin’s forces have revived memories of the horrors Bosnia and Kosovo experienced in the 1990s at the hands of Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia.

The prospect of similarly heightened threats of violent conflict, spurred to a significant extent by Putin, in the Western Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, has renewed attention to the idea of NATO stepping up its role there. The alliance has had a “peace-support operation” in Kosovo since 1999, but ceded those responsibilities in Bosnia to a European Union force in 2004 while maintaining a presence to support Bosnia’s aspirations for membership. A recent survey shows support for NATO accession remains strong in both countries, except in Serb circles inflamed by disinformation.

Considering the increased tensions in the region – as illustrated this week by the street protests in Bosnia over a planned move by the internationally appointed High Representative to impose election law changes, NATO should seize on this interest and the momentum the alliance has gained from its unified backing for Ukraine to step back in more seriously in Bosnia and Kosovo. It could do so either by beefing up its troop presence or by accelerating Bosnia and Herzegovina’s and Kosovo’s entry into NATO. With the United States remaining the most powerful member of NATO and considering its history with Bosnia and Kosovo, its role will be key.

NATO is generally seen favorably across many of the region’s member countries, which now include Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and most recently Albania and North Macedonia. Among non-NATO member states, support for full membership of the alliance rose in Bosnia and remains high in Kosovo, according to the results of a region-wide survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) during the Russian build-up to its full-scale invasion in February. Bosnia and especially Kosovo remain significantly pro-American and pro-Western. In Bosnia, NATO accession is supported by 69 percent of Bosniaks and 77 percent of Croats, but only 8 percent of Serbs, setting overall support to 51 percent. In Kosovo, support for NATO is even higher: 82 percent of Albanians favor full NATO membership vs. 7 percent of Serbs.

Views of the US, Biden

In Bosnia and Kosovo, highly or somewhat favorable views of Germany (77 percent and 89 percent, respectively), Turkey (71 percent and 83 percent), and the United States (64 percent and 88 percent) outpace favorable views of Russia (49 percent and 12 percent) or China 52 percent and 15 percent). In Serbia, on the other hand, 91 percent have highly or somewhat favorable views of Russia, and 84 percent feel that way about China, while only 30 percent have favorable views of the United States.

Views of the United States are very positive among the region’s Muslim populations especially. The IRI poll’s ethnic breakdown reveals that Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Kosovar Albanians (who are Muslim) are America’s most loyal allies in this region, with a staggering 80 percent of Bosniaks in Bosnia having a favorable opinion of the United States compared with only 36 percent of Serbs and 59 percent of Croats. By contrast, 89 percent of Bosnian Serbs had a favorable opinion of Russia. In Kosovo, an astonishing 94 percent of Kosovar Albanians had a favorable view of the United States.

When it comes to foreign threat perceptions, in Bosnia, 60 percent of Bosniaks consider Russia their biggest “political threat or threat,” as the survey phrased it, while 45 percent of Serbs place the United States in that category. Similarly in Kosovo, 69 percent consider Russia to pose the biggest threat, while 54 percent say the same of China, while only 20 percent would say that of the United States.

President Joe Biden, still fondly remembered by many in Bosnia and Kosovo for his fiery speeches in support of the two countries as they faced Serb political and military attacks in the 1990s, when he was a U.S. senator, remains a popular figure. His overall favorability rating in Bosnia stands at 48 percent, including 69 percent of Bosniaks, though only 15 percent of Bosnian Serbs. By contrast, 83 percent of Bosnian Serbs had a favorable opinion of Putin.

Bearing in mind that Bosnia is divided, under the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war, into two highly autonomous political “entities,” as they are called, the findings paint a stark, almost Cold War-like divide within the small Balkan country. One of the entities is populated almost exclusively by Orthodox Serbs and the other dominantly by Muslim Bosniaks and a Catholic Croat minority.

It might come as a surprise that, despite America’s tainted image throughout the Middle East, overwhelming majorities of Muslims in the Western Balkans – Bosniaks in Bosnia and Albanians in Kosovo (as well as in North Macedonia, for that matter) – are firmly pro-American in their orientation. The IRI poll showed that, in Bosnia, 42 percent overall and 58 percent of Bosniaks favor a pro-European Union and pro-Western policy. In Kosovo, 84 percent of Albanians favor such a Western course.

Enduring US Ties

Digging deeper, this makes sense. Since its inception in 1949, NATO has intervened only twice to protect a Muslim population endangered by non-Muslims: in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995 to protect Bosniaks from Serb génocidaires and in Kosovo in 1999 to protect Albanians from the onslaught of Serbian troops and paramilitary forces. While Muslim countries provided weapons to their counterparts at the time, and some fighters flowed to Bosnia – fueling Serb disinformation to this day, even though the Bosniaks were continuously outgunned by the Serb war machine – no Muslim-majority country was ever willing to send its jets in defense of beleaguered Balkan Muslims, not even the closest one, Turkey.

The United States, however, did. And following wars in both countries, thousands of American and allied troops were stationed there for years to preserve the peace. They still are in Kosovo, and NATO maintains a military headquarters in Bosnia to support reforms needed for potential membership in the alliance and to support the EU force. These partnerships have long underpinned close military and political cooperation. And as the IRI results indicate, the relationships have led to the lasting perception of many Muslims as well as Croats in the Western Balkans that joining NATO’s security umbrella is the most tenable way of safeguarding Bosnia and Kosovo’s internationally recognized borders against the irredentist aspirations of Serbia, Moscow’s No. 1 ally in the region.

This is particularly true in the case in Bosnia, where tensions have escalated in recent years as Russia-backed Serbs there and their allies in neighboring Serbia agitate for the majority-Serb entity, Republika Srpska, to secede. It is important to note the correlation of right-wing nationalism in Serbia and by Bosnian Serbs with a pro-Russian stance: a recent survey by Pew Research revealed that Europeans who support right-wing populist parties in their own countries are more likely to express confidence in Putin and his dealings in world affairs. Similar patterns have been observed among supporters of right-wing populist parties in Germany (Alternative for Germany), the U.K. (Reform UK), France (National Rally), and Sweden (Sweden Democrats), as in the backers of Bosnian Serb secessionist leader Milorad Dodik or his neighbor, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

So, considering the intensive support of the United States and the European Union, how did this dangerous situation develop in the Western Balkans? It is worth remembering that, starting from 2004, the United States began disengaging from the region in the belief that the European Union could manage the situation. Washington was refocusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, and its leaders quietly hoped that EU accession would eventually secure the region’s peace and prosperity. However, over the past years, many analysts and intellectuals in the Western Balkans have concluded that the EU’s approach to the region was rudderless, as leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron took action to stall further EU enlargement, and EU officials dealing with the region often lacked the most basic understanding of the granular dynamic of transnational politics and ethnic relations.

Declining Trust in Democratic Institutions

The EU’s resulting policy towards nationalists and its willingness to make deals with them at the expense of most elected officials and the interests of citizens amounted to appeasement, and eventually led to declining trust in democratic institutions, deep disappointment in the political system, and a general disinterest in further reforms. Corruption and patronage networks involving well-entrenched political figures impeded meaningful reform and ultimately fueled democratic backsliding. Today, many citizens in the region no longer see EU membership as a realistic prospect, though as the IRI poll showed, interest remains sky high – 76 percent in Bosnia and 85 percent in Kosovo. Renewed warmongering rhetoric and historical revisionism are once again being deftly used by pro-Russian leaders such as Dodik and Vučić and Vučić’s Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin to advocate for secession, deny the Srebrenica genocide, and establish an ostensible Greater Serbia.

As the United States painfully relearns time and again, when it leaves a particular region, others quickly fill the vacuum and play according to their own rules. The cost of reentry in the case of renewed war is, by rule, always astronomically higher, while the price of the vacuum left in the meantime will necessarily be paid in diminished influence and regional instability. We have seen the costs of such a vacuum most recently in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now firmly rule the entire country. And we saw this in Iraq, where the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 made room for the ravages of ISIS as it arose from the ashes left behind, and in the influence of Iran through its political and paramilitary proxies. Arguably, even in Ukraine, the United States drew down its development missions and both the EU and NATO stalled for time on granting membership or even clear paths in that direction.

The same must not be allowed to happen in the Western Balkans, where the United States and the European Union have invested significantly since the 1990s and where popular support for the United States and NATO runs high.

Before Russia opens yet another war theater through its proxies, the United States must recalibrate its policy to restore U.S. — and ultimately transatlantic — influence in the region.

IMAGE: The Bosnian national flag is handed over to a squadron leader during a ceremony in Capljina, on June 12, 2019. During their departure ceremony, Bosnian armed forces presented a 10th rotation of infantry men and military police to be dispatched into a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, as part of the NATO troops operating in that country at the time. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)