Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, international and regional observers have speculated that the conflict could spill over into the Balkans. If this happens, Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely be the first to witness turmoil. Indeed, the country has already been threatened by Bosnian Serb hawk Milorad Dodik, who continues to push for an independent Republika Srpska backed by Russia. Macedonian President Stevo Panderovski was early to recognize this danger, saying, “if [Russia] invades Ukraine, the most vulnerable place in the Western Balkans is Banja Luka.” In this sense it should be noted that only one month before the invasion, Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia was at the Bosnian Serbs’ administrative center in Banja Luka saluting Bosnian Serb forces in a military parade that celebrated the unconstitutional “Day of Republika Srpska”. Still, Bosnia is not the only country in the region facing uncertainty. Others including Kosovo, Montenegro, and even North Macedonia are uneasy when contending with fragile political and ethnic dynamics and Russia’s long arm in the region.
It seems that the invasion of Ukraine has turned into a war that will last longer than expected; soon it will become just another story within the Western news media despite the initial harsh reactions from Western governments and publics. Sanctions will definitely weaken the Russian economy but not destroy it. Under these circumstances, Moscow will try to distract the West from Ukraine by opening new fronts in other parts of Europe. In this way, Moscow can focus on Ukraine while its proxies create tensions, conflicts, and uprisings elsewhere in the Balkans.
Speculatively, such a front could emerge if Bosnia’s Republika Srpska unilaterally declares independence. This could easily transform into an armed conflict not only in Bosnia but also in Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, where a Serb uprising in the country’s north could challenge Kosovar authorities, demand further autonomy, or even push for Serbia to annex Kosovo’s north. Further west, in Montenegro, radical Serb parties who were overthrown recently could try to seize power through violent means, effectively cancelling the country’s bid to join NATO. Indeed, Serb nationalists have already started rallying in support of Russia. Any conflict or ethnic tension in the region also has the potential to bring turmoil to North Macedonia. Indeed, the country is already divided along pro-Russian and pro-EU lines as well as between ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian communities. Last but not least, one should not overlook the largely Muslim Sandzak region nested between Serbia and Montenegro. As one of the only regions in the Balkans to not receive autonomous political status with the introduction of modern borders, Sandzak could come to represent the soft underbelly of the region in term of security.
Pro-Russian Factions’ “Wait And See” Policy
Early cheers of Russia’s invasion have now given way to disappointment amongst the region’s pro-Russian groups. While Serb leaders initially lauded Russia’s invasion as changing the world order, they are now silent as they watch the West’s intense sanctions and the humiliation of the Russian army on the field in Ukraine. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic opposed enacting sanctions against Russia and refused to engage in any anti-Russian activity, but later he had to join the West in the UN vote to condemn Russia’s actions.
Two factors will decide the ultimate fate of Russia’s influence in the region. First, the failure or success of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine is of the utmost importance. Serb leaders and radical Serb groups want to see Russia exercise its might, but up until now the Russian army has experienced significant losses while Ukrainians led by Volodymyr Zelensky have put up a surprising resistance thanks to Western support. Yet, Russia’s sub-par performance in the early days of the invasion may actually be an attempt by the aggressor to exercise restraint in anticipation of civilian losses and severe destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure. However, security and military experts believe that Russia will soon attack Ukraine in full force, using its heavy artillery and air capabilities to shell major cities, spelling ruin for the country and its people. A Russian victory would obviously embolden pro-Russian groups in the region and allow them to force through their agendas with Russian support.
The second factor that will affect Russian influence in the region is Serbia’s elections in April. Massive protests in the country display a growing opposition to President Vucic. Here, he does not want to risk his political career by betting against the anger and resolve of the West, the EU, and everyday Serbians. Still, it should be noted that Serbia is one of the only countries in which thousands of people demonstrated in support of Russia’s invasion. Considering the balances, it seems that Vucic will wait until after the elections to become involved in any regional disputes or give the greenlight to radical pro-Russian Serb factions.
The West Is Also Preparing
Russia could try to incite the Balkans even before a military success in Ukraine or before Serbia’s elections, but in this case it would fail to gain maximum support in the region and would only bring further shame to Russia and its proxies. Another important motivation for Russia’s potential involvement in the Balkans is a desire to raise the stakes of negotiations. Moscow knows that if it comes to the table, it may have to make concessions in the face of an unprecedentedly united West. If Moscow is able to bring more issues related to European security to the table – such as the independence of Republika Srpska, the status of northern Kosovo, or Montenegro’s NATO membership – its hand will be stronger.
Aware of Russian plans and desires in the Balkans, the West is also making its preparations. It can be assumed that the US’s planned and partially introduced sanctions on Bosnian Serb and other politicians will be extended if tensions rise; moreover the EU, Germany, and the UK would most probably follow the US’s lead and enact sanctions against separatist Serb politicians and the business tycoons who support them. In addition to this, due to increasing risks, the international military mission in Bosnia decided to nearly double its numbers (from 600 to 1,100) at the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Within a short time this number could easily be further increased to 2,000 or 3,000; and in the medium term it could even be boosted to 5,000. The leading role of the US and UK in increasing the number of soldiers may also result in the formation of new military bases, particularly in Bosnia’s Tuzla and Brcko districts. Indeed, new soldiers and military equipment have already begun to arrive in the country with long convoys as a sign of strength. In Kosovo, the Pristina government has also already asked the US to open a military base within the country while reiterating its request to join NATO as soon as possible.
The war in Ukraine is expected to draw out despite Russia’s plans; and even though Russia has only seen limited military success, it is still far too early to declare its defeat. Furthermore, the severity of Western sanctions may cause Russia to feel cornered, prompting it to lash out uninhibited without regard for the costs. In this sense, the conflict is likely to have severe effects on the Balkans, the scope of which will be decided by the future success of Russia’s operation, regional political dynamics, and the West’s resolve to present a united front in the region.