As the U.N. General Assembly considers a draft resolution designating July 11 for an annual commemoration of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide against Bosnian Muslims, the regime in Bosnia’s majority-Serb entity, with its allies in neighboring Serbia and in Russia, is intensifying its threats of violence and secession. The backlash includes protests featuring the flags of the majority-Serb entity (known as Republika Srpska or the RS), as well as those of Serbia and Russia, and images of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The images underscore the growing malign influence of Russia in Bosnia.

The confluence of Republika Srpska’s and Serbia’s denial of the Srebrenica genocide with Russia’s current genocidal aggression in Ukraine highlights a grim pattern of historical revisionism and denial. As the U.N. resolution aims not to name perpetrators, who are already convicted by international courts, but to emphasize the civilizational imperative of condemning genocide and educating the public about it, the vehement opposition from Republika Srpska and Serbia represents a profound effort to reshape historical narratives, in this case about atrocities that killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys and drove women and children from their homes and communities. This struggle over memory and truth is not just about the past; it is a fight over the soul and future direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the fragile Western Balkans region, challenging the very foundations of international justice and historical accountability.

With backing from Serbia and increasingly from Russia, RS leader Milorad Dodik not only rejects the Srebrenica resolution but also has long threatened to secede from Bosnia, and already in 2018 invited in a Russian paramilitary biker gang, the Night Wolves, as he sought to create his own security forces. The current intense opposition to the U.N. resolution — Russia even demanded a U.N. Security Council meeting on the issue this week — underscores a disturbing alliance in the Western Balkans that seeks to rewrite history and deflect responsibility for past atrocities.

Public opinion in Serbia and the RS part of Bosnia has been molded by media control and disinformation to reflect this alliance with Russia and a general opposition to the West. In Serbia, despite the country’s purported aspirations to European Union membership and presumably the Western values that represents – and requires — nearly half of the population (46 percent) considers Russia as its most crucial ally, far surpassing China (14 percent) and the United States (2 percent). Moreover, a substantial 36 percent of Serbian respondents perceive the United States as the most significant threat to their country. A similar sentiment prevails in the RS, where 89 percent view Russia positively, and 41.4 percent believe the United States has a malign influence.

RS Visits to the Kremlin and a New Cabinet in Serbia

This strong alignment with Russia is not just a matter of public sentiment but is mirrored in the political interactions between the leaders of Serbia or the RS and Russia. Dodik in February met with Putin for a fourth time since Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, exemplifying a deep mutual recognition that includes awarding Putin with Republika Srpska’s highest medal of honor. This relationship has allowed Russia to embed itself deeply across various sectors in the RS, including politics, security, religion, culture, academia, and the media. The RS regime’s overt acceptance of Russian influence illustrates a strategic approach, in which external influence is harnessed to bolster separatist goals. And just this week, Serbia’s prime minister-designate announced a new Cabinet that will include two figures, including former intelligence chief Alexandar Vulin, who are under U.S. sanctions, in part over ties with Russia.

The opposition of the Serb-Russian alliance to the Srebrenica resolution at the U.N. strikingly echoes the rhetoric and geopolitical maneuvers that characterized the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Leaders from Serbia and the RS depict the resolution as a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) strategy backed by hostile Western countries. It’s crucial to understand that this ongoing defiance is a continuation of conflict by other means — a battle fought not with weapons but through memories and meanings. Dodik and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić use these tactics to bolster their personal positions, in patterns that permeate political, economic, and cultural veins in their respective geographic domains.

These entrenched relationships have stymied Western efforts aimed at promoting democratic standards and integrating Bosnia, Serbia, and the broader region into the European Union and NATO. Recent polling data shows low support for full NATO membership in Serbia, remaining in the single digits — just 3 percent currently. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for EU integration also has declined — support in Serbia dropped from 50 percent in 2018 to 40 percent in 2024. In Republika Srpska, support for EU integration has decreased by 11.1 percentage points from 61.7 percent in 2021 to 50.6 percent in 2023, while interest in NATO integration stands at around 24 percent.

For the international community, particularly Western nations, this is a moment to reassess their strategies in the Western Balkans. Over the last 20 years of Dodik’s provocations, the the United States and its European allies have most often responded with appeasement, an approach that has consistently failed. In 2007, for instance, attempts by the international community’s Office of the High Representative, which is charged with enforcing the terms of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war, to streamline convoluted and dysfunctional government processes in Bosnia were met with resistance and protests from the RS, leading to negotiations that undid the reforms. The incident demonstrated Dodik’s ability to leverage threats of secession as a political tool against both domestic and international opponents.

Another notable example occurred in 2011, when Republika Srpska initiated a “Structural Dialogue on Judicial Reform” under the threat of a referendum. This led to the removal of independent foreign judges and prosecutors that had been installed under the Dayton Agreement, which had established the constitutional „entity“ divide as a compromise. The ouster of independent jurists effectively allowed the hardline RS government to assert control over its judicial system. Such repeated appeasement has only encouraged further demands and resistance, rather than promoting stability or integration.

Likewise, appeasing Dodik in his opposition to the U.N. General Assembly resolution on the Srebrenica genocide would be a mistake. In a move redolent of earlier concessions, just one day after Dodik orchestrated protests in RS against the resolution, an EU official working on Bosnia’s integration into the EU sat down with Dodik in a setting that prominently featured a flag representing the RS but not that of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Need for a Deterrence Strategy

What is required now is a robust deterrence strategy. The newly expanded scope of U.S. sanctions in October against individuals and legal entities in Republika Srpska, including Dodik, members of his family, and close political allies, has begun to effectively limit, and even halt, their financial activities. Economic sanctions, increased troop numbers for the EU peacekeeping mission EUFOR, and even positioning a NATO brigade in a nearby member State such as Montenegro or North Macedonia could serve as potent deterrents against secessionist ambitions and ensure long-term regional stability.

European Union sanctions are also necessary. While a few individual member countries have imposed bilateral penalties for official intransigence by Bosnian Serb authorities, the European Union as a whole has so far limited its response to merely condemning secession threats without taking concrete actions against the political figures involved, in large part because of veto threats from Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. A more assertive EU approach would help solidify a more comprehensive international stance against destabilizing actions in the Western Balkans.

Moreover, reinforcing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s own military capabilities and reaffirming its path toward NATO membership are essential steps. With a significant portion of the Bosnian population overall supporting NATO integration, the West must not waver in its commitment to this goal, which would not only stabilize Bosnia but also serve as a counterbalance to Serbian and Russian interference.

The Srebrenica Genocide resolution in the U.N. General Assemby is also significant for the continuity of U.S. policy of acknowledging the degree of atrocities that occurred there. The genocide was affirmed by President Bill Clinton, as well as in a 2018 statement by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and most recently by President Joe Biden. Additionally, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, in June 2005, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives adopted resolutions that stated, “the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing as implemented by Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 meet the terms defining the crime of genocide in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” Ten years later, in 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives also unanimously adopted a resolution declaring the July 1995 atrocities at Srebrenica to constitute genocide. It was a pointed rebuke of Russia, which just hours earlier had vetoed a resolution condemning the massacres at Srebrenica.

The pending U.N. resolution on Srebrenica is more than symbolic; it is a crucial pivot point for international policy and a test of resolve in confronting not just the specters of past violence but the pressing threats of today. It is imperative for the international community to move beyond short-term solutions and adopt a strategy that firmly supports justice, historical truth, and regional stability. This approach is not merely preventive but necessary in building a future in which such atrocities can never be denied nor repeated.

IMAGE: In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with President of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, in the Russian city of Kazan in Tatarstan on February 21, 2024. (Photo by SERGEI BOBYLYOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)