Bosnia is on the brink of crisis. U.S. and NATO troops could prevent it
Perhaps at no stage, since the Bosnian War ended in 1995 has there been so much talk about war reigniting in the country. There is widespread consensus among domestic and international observers that Bosnia is on the brink of what is undoubtedly the most serious crisis in the postwar period.
That crisis is being fueled by the actions of one man: Milorad Dodik.
In early October, the Bosnian Serb leader and member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency announced plans to undertake steps that are tantamount to secession in all but name. The strategy is simple: to undermine and dismantle Bosnia’s state-level institutions while building up the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska—one of the two administrative units of postwar Bosnia, along with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—as a would-be statelet.
Dodik’s plans include passing legislation in Republika Srpska to strip the country’s state-level institutions of their prerogatives there. The separatist leader intends to prohibit state-level police and intelligence services as well as judicial bodies from operating inside Republika Srpska and to establish its own parallel institutions. Upping the ante, Dodik also announced plans to form a Republika Srpska Army.
In pursuing a policy of establishing parallel centers of power, Dodik is following in the footsteps of what Bosnian Serb wartime leaders did exactly 30 years ago in the fall of 1991. The result was an attempt at secession in 1992, and many in Bosnia fear a repetition of the same in the months ahead.
Dodik’s recent escalation is merely the latest stage in his separatist agenda. For more than three months now, Bosnian Serb officials have been blocking the functioning of the country’s state-level institutions by refusing to participate. In postwar Bosnia, institutions are ethnicity-based, and vetoes are built into the political system, rendering the country easily paralyzed.
The officials are doing this in direct retaliation for the decision of the Office of the High Representative—the top international official overseeing the civilian implementation of the Dayton Accords—to impose a law criminalizing denial of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide committed by Bosnian Serb forces or other war crimes. Dodik and other nationalist Bosnian Serb leaders have long rejected the genocide designation and glorified the perpetrators, who are convicted war criminals, to gin up nationalist fervor.
Bosniak Muslim politicians, meanwhile, are trapped. A failure to respond to Dodik is perceived as weakness, but a commitment to use all available means to defend Bosnia’s territorial integrity is painted as warmongering—particularly because while Dodik takes substantial steps toward secession, his rhetoric is speciously all about peace. This has all combined to produce a toxic political environment in the country.
The international response to the crisis has been hapless. In late October, the European Union dispatched a high-level official, Angelina Eichhorst, to negotiate election law reform. Bosnia’s election law, arising out of the Dayton Accords, is discriminatory toward minorities not belonging to one of the three main ethnic groups. Reforming the election law is necessary both on its merits and for Bosnia to move forward toward closer integration with the EU. However, pursuing these reforms now amid what is an existential threat to the country appeared to be a gross mismatch between the EU’s priority and the unfolding crisis.
Dodik is keenly aware of internal EU divisions and has confidently brushed aside any possibility of forthcoming EU sanctions. And he has met recently with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa in a bid to cultivate ties with Europe’s illiberal politicians and further exploit those divisions.
The European Union Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR), tasked with overseeing the military side of the implementation of the Dayton Accords, is a woefully inadequate deterrent to a serious security challenge. Compared with the 60,000 NATO-led international peacekeepers deployed to implement the accords in 1995, the EUFOR mission, with just 600 troops on the ground in Bosnia, is grossly understaffed. The presence of this small contingent has also had the counterproductive impact of having lulled the Bosnian population into a false sense of security in much the same way the Dutch battalion did in Srebrenica in 1995.
With the ineffective EU response to the crisis, the hopes of many Bosnians are now pinned on the United States. The Biden administration recently dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar to convey America’s commitment to Bosnia’s territorial integrity. But after meeting Escobar, Dodik remained combative. The sanctions the U.S. Treasury Department imposed on Dodik in 2017 for “actively obstructing the Dayton Accords” have also produced no change in behavior. He bragged last month about how he cursed in talks with Escobar and stated confidently that he is not concerned about potential additional sanctions. In fact, Dodik declared that he feels “very comfortable.”
A more substantial effort by the Biden administration is needed to preserve peace in Bosnia. The only meaningful way forward is for the Biden administration to lead NATO in redeploying a mission to Bosnia.
NATO need not develop new deployment plans. The 1995 mission was exceptionally successful. The overwhelming presence of NATO—and particularly the U.S.—troops was a formidable deterrent that effectively prevented Bosnia from slipping back into war. In fact, the military aspect of the Dayton Accords was far more successfully implemented than the civilian aspect of the agreement. NATO could now replicate elements of that mission from a quarter-century ago but with fewer troops—3,000 to 5,000 troops would probably be sufficient, assuming the situation doesn’t dramatically deteriorate further in the coming weeks.
U.S. and NATO troops should be stationed in the capital of Sarajevo, could use Tuzla Airport as a base and for resupply, and should be deployed in the strategically important town of Brcko in the northeast. The status of Brcko was a stumbling block in the Dayton peace talks and was resolved only after the war. The town is a self-governing district separate from both of the country’s administrative units. Brcko’s strategic importance derives from its geography, making it crucial for communication between the northern part of Republika Srpska and Serbia but also between the northern and eastern parts of Republika Srpska.
Deployment of NATO troops to Brcko would send a clear signal that secession is not an option. Any attempt at secession would face a logistical and communication blockade with NATO troops interposed at this critical juncture. Stationing troops there would preserve the town’s distinct status within Bosnia and would ensure that the Dayton Accords are still respected.
The renewed presence of U.S. and NATO forces in Bosnia would primarily produce a deterrent effect against any attempts at secession by Republika Srpska. In much the same way that NATO’s presence in the immediate postwar period maintained peace, a new mission would produce the same result now. While NATO’s new mission in Bosnia would not resolve the stalemate built into post-Dayton Bosnia’s institutions, the troops would alleviate the concerns of Bosnian citizens and observers that events are now spiraling out of control.
By leading NATO in redeploying troops to Bosnia, the Biden administration would also affirm America’s commitment to preserving a rare successful case of state-building over the past decades. The United States and the EU invested significantly in the postwar reconstruction of Bosnia and helped navigate the war-torn country into slow but visible progress. Preserving peace in Bosnia now will once again require a firm foothold in this Balkan country.