Bosnia Fears Vladimir Putin's War of Conquest Will Spread to Balkans

Bosnia and Herzegovina's foreign minister has told Newsweek her country fears the war in Ukraine may prove part of a "larger trend" of Russian aggression across eastern Europe and into the Balkans, where Moscow's hand has long loomed behind unrest.

Bisera Turkovic said Putin's decision to wage a major war in Ukraine has reinforced her desire for Bosnia and Herzegovina to soon become a member of both the European Union and NATO, though the country's pro-Russian Bosnian Serbs—led by Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik—are pushing back against the plans.

"Certainly, the war in Ukraine is causing fear and concern in our region that this might now be the beginning of a larger trend in Eastern Europe," Turkovic told Newsweek. "The Balkans is Europe's Achilles heel."

Bosnia has been thrust into chaos by political disputes between Dodik and his allies in the Republika Srpska—a Serb-dominated entity and one of two that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina—and the Bosniak-dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dodik has threatened to withdraw Serbs from the national military and other state-level institutions, which could collapse the 1995 Dayton peace treaty and reignite war. His agitation has won him sanctions from the U.S. and condemnation in the West.

In a thinly veiled reference to Moscow, Dodik warned last year: "If anybody tries to stop us, we have friends who will defend us."

The invasion of Ukraine and the seismic Western realignment against Russia has introduced a new source of instability in the western Balkans. Last week, the EU almost doubled the size of its EUFOR peacekeeping force in Bosnia to 1,100 troops.

"The deterioration of the security situation internationally has the potential to spread instability to Bosnia & Herzegovina," EUFOR said in a statement.

It added its "assessment is that there is currently no threat to the safe and secure environment that would require EUFOR's support. The situation is being continually monitored and further reinforcements can be brought in if necessary."

Turkovic told Newsweek she welcomed the expansion of the EUFOR mission. "The decision to increase EUFOR's presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is important and contributes to stabilization," she said.

"The war in Bosnia from the 1990s has left scars and a deep fear of a resurgence of conflict. Yet, we are seeing efforts by Dodik which are eerily similar to the playbook seen in Ukraine; blockades of state institutions, endangerment of the Dayton peace accords, and secessionist policies.

"One cannot rule out that they could get support from outside, to provoke unrest and conflict in Bosnia in order to destabilize Europe," she added, an apparent reference to Russia.

Turkovic continued: "The open announcements of secession and gross violations of the Dayton peace agreement by Dodik, whom Russia openly supports, has caused the most serious political and security crisis in the country since the 1995 signing of the Dayton peace agreement.

"Dodik has threatened to call his 'friends' for help in the case of resistance to his policies.

"The western Balkans requires urgent protection and needs the EU to sanction those who endanger the peace and security of Bosnia and Herzegovina as it may very much be the next battleground."

In the past week, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have all submitted applications to join the EU. They join Bosnia and several other Balkan countries in this ambition, though the accession process is long and arduous, even without having to fend off a Russian invasion.

Bombed building burns in Kharkiv Ukraine
A burning building is pictured following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 3, 2022. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP

Ukraine and Georgia also want to join NATO; a policy that formed the crux of the most recent round of Russian aggression. Bosnia wants to join the alliance too, as do several of its Balkan neighbors. Moscow is opposed, and in recent years has worked hard to undermine pro-Western governments and movements in the region.

"The closer the countries of the Balkans are to NATO membership, the less danger there is of destabilization from inside or outside," Turkovic said. "That is why the majority of the country's citizens support Bosnia and Herzegovina's speedy progress towards EU and NATO membership."

As for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, Russia's invasion has perhaps opened up new opportunities for the Balkans. The threat from the east may yet encourage the EU and NATO to progress Balkan membership bids to secure Europe's southeastern flank.

Turkovic is among those who seemingly see a window. "In these grave & uncertain times for the security of Europe, we ask you to immediately grant [Bosnia and Herzegovina] candidate status for the [EU]," she wrote on Twitter on Thursday. "Accession to the [EU] guarantees peace and stability of [Bosnia and Herzegovina] and the Western Balkans."

Bosnia's Bisera Turkovic in Berlin Germany 2021
Bosnia and Herzegovina's Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic addresses a joint press conference with her German counterpart following talks at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany on March 9, 2021. KAY NIETFELD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images