A rekindling of old conflicts could very soon happen once again in the Balkans, according to many international analysts. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is openly on an arms spending spree and has increased defense expenditures in the last six years by 70 percent. 

Compounding the issues in the region is a growing threat of mounting separatism by Bosnian Serbs. Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serbian entity, has made preparations to withdraw it from the country’s joint army, intelligence, judicial, and tax administration via a vote in the Republika Srpska parliament. He has clearly stated that he plans to disband all institutions that allow a government and country to function properly. 

“I proclaim the end of this,” Dodik said at a news conference after meeting ambassadors from EU countries in Bosnia.

After a bloody and brutal ethnic civil war during the 1990s between Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and Catholic Croats, the international community stepped in and negotiated the Dayton Accords. The accords put an end to the fighting and split Bosnia into two separate autonomous territories, the Republika Srpska and the Federation dominated by Croats and Bosniaks, which was led by a weak central government.

Milorad Dodik and Vladimir Putin
Milorad Dodik and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The unrest in this region will also affect the question of the difficult relationship between Serbia and Kosovo in the same or similar way,” Christian Schmidt, a former German foreign minister and current high representative to Bosnia said to Reuters.

“If the degradation of the Dayton treaty continues… there is a risk that the country will break apart… If this proves to be true… then we in the international community will have to think very, very, very seriously about how we can move forward,” Schmidt added.

Russia has close ties to Dodik. As it does elsewhere, the Kremlin is openly pushing to destabilize the government of Bosnia Herzegovina by using local media to promote pro-Moscow narratives and political groups hostile to the EU and NATO. Russia is training a Bosnian Serb paramilitary unit and trying to acquire ownership of strategic industries.

The Russians attempted to start a coup in Montenegro in 2016 and have blocked Kosovo from full international recognition at the UN Security Council.

President Putin is supporting the continuation of ethnic tensions and political stagnation which will eventually stop the Bosnian ascension to NATO. It is yet another influence operation by Moscow to undermine the West, the EU, and NATO, quite similar to what they are doing in Ukraine. 

The U.S. talks tough. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar told Congress that the U.S. is working with the EU to “make sure there are consequences for any illegal or any destabilizing actions” in Bosnia. But would the Biden administration agree to once again send American troops to a regional peace-keeping force? That is doubtful. 

Serbian President Vucic and Leon Panetta
Serbian President Vucic and then-U.S. Secretary of State Leon Panetta. (DoD)

The Serbs rearming is a worrying aspect for the West as it will continue an arc that began in 2014.

Russia and Belarus sent the Serbs 10 MiG-29 aircraft. Russia sent 30 armored vehicles (tanks and APCs) as well as an air-defense system. The Chinese sent armored drones, while there were reports that Serbs have approached Israel about buying anti-tank missiles as well as drones that the Turks sent to Azerbaijan to defeat Armenian forces. 

Serbian rearming coupled with the impending breakup of Bosnia Herzegovina is a recipe for open conflict again. Last month Dodik said that if violence comes from Republika Srpska’s withdrawal from Bosnia, the Russians would defend his forces.

While the Serbs are surrounded by NATO countries, and although the U.S. has trained Serbian troops since the end of the last conflict, the threat of violence once again is very real.