Russian President Vladimir Putin is meddling in the Balkans with the potential goal of fomenting a second conflict in Eastern Europe to distract the West from his war in Ukraine — and Washington should be paying closer attention.
That’s the key message from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s newly-tapped Ambassador to the United Nations Zlatko Lagumdzija, who says Russia’s messy failure in Ukraine presents a chance for the U.S. and the European Union to seize regional influence lost to Russia and others, including China, in recent years.
“Over the last five or six years, the Russian influence especially, has become much more present in the Western Balkans than Moscow could have even imagined it could ever be,” Mr. Lagumdzija told The Washington Times. “The Russians are pushing divisive propaganda and relationships and denying it as they do it.”
“In recent decades, the U.S. left this region to the Europeans and, with all due respect, this was a way of postponing any real solution to the problems of the region because the Europeans have too many mixed opinions when it comes to the Western Balkans,” Mr. Lagumdzija said. “But now over the past year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has actually united Europe around so many things, including around the Western Balkans and Bosnia in particular.”
“But the fact is that the Americans had put the region so low on their agenda that it resulted in an international power vacuum in the Western Balkans and that created an opening for Russia,” he said. “They simply filled up the vacuum, and so has China, economically.”
Mr. Lagumdzija, who served as Bosnia’s deputy prime minister during the mid-1990s and foreign minister from 2012 to 2015, made the comments in a wide-ranging interview via telephone from Sarajevo last week as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing in Washington examining U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans, including Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
The six nations represent the politically volatile bulk of the former Yugoslavia that was torn apart by war during the early-1990s and has long been a battleground for influence between Russia and the West.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar, who oversees the Biden administration’s Balkan policy, honed in on Russian meddling during the hearing, telling lawmakers that Moscow has seized on ongoing political friction in the region.
Mr. Escobar pointed to the “fraught” Serbia-Kosovo relationship, asserting that failures to achieve political reconciliation between the two has “allowed Russia to play a spoiler against Serbia’s strategic goal of European integration.” He also expressed concern over friction within territorial Bosnia, where the leadership of the Republika Srpska — the Bosnian Serb-dominated section of the tiny country — is seen to be in close coordination with Mr. Putin.
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik threatened last year to declare the territory’s separation from the rest of Bosnia, a development some regional analysts said could spark a renewal of the ethnic tensions and violence that underpinned the war between Serbia, Bosnia and nearby Croatia nearly three decades ago.
“We are deeply alarmed by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik’s persistent secessionist and anti-democratic actions,” Mr. Escobar testified. “In cooperation with European partners, we will work to deter Dodik from pursuing de facto separation.”
But questions loom over the Biden administration’s bandwidth for coming through at a moment when the White House is focused on rallying Asian democracies to counter China, and European allies to continue backing Ukraine against Russia’s military assault.
Mr. Lagumdzija pointed to Russian influence operations across the region between Ukraine and the Balkans, stressing that Mr. Dodik in the Republika Srpska fits within a cadre of Eastern European leaders “in alignment with Putin” or pandering to the authoritarian Russian president and opening themselves to Russian influence. Most notable, he said, are Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, who was defeated in an election in that country last year.
Critics of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic put him in the group as well, since he refused to explicitly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year and secured a valuable natural gas deal with Moscow just as Washington and Brussels scrambled to block such deals.
Mr. Dodik, meanwhile, sparked fresh unease last month by declaring that the Republika Srpska should be united not with Bosnia, but with Serbia.
“No one will prevent us [Serbs] from uniting because it is our right and our history,” said Mr. Dodik, who heads the Republika Srpksa as the Bosnian-Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite, inter-ethnic presidency.
“The last century was the century of Serbian suffering, and this century is one of Serbian unification,” he told a crowd on April 24, according to U.S. government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFL/RL).
Mr. Dodik’s proximity to Mr. Putin, meanwhile, was on fresh display Monday with Bosnian news sources reporting that he was in Moscow meeting with Russian security chiefs, and was slated to hold talks with the Russian president on Tuesday.
U.S. frustration with Mr. Dodik spewed into the open last year, with Washington sanctioning him in January 2022 on grounds his policies were undermining the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that established Bosnia’s government and ended the Balkan war.
According to Mr. Lagumdzija, during the lead-up to Mr. Putin’s February 2022 Ukraine invasion, Mr. Dodik was preparing to call for a Republika Srpska separation from Bosnia, thinking the proper time would come if Ukraine fell into Russian hands. “The plan was delayed,” Mr. Lagumdzija told The Times, “because of Russia’s miscalculation in Ukraine.”
“Putin thought the invasion was going to be a blitzkrieg that would be done in seven days … and Russia would have control of Ukraine. That did not happen,” said Mr. Lagumdzija, whose recent appointment to the U.N. was made by Dodik-rival Denis Becirovic, the newly-elected Bosniak — or Bosnian Muslim — representative of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency.
Mr. Putin, he added, could still attempt to lean on Mr. Dodik to generate a “bargaining chip” for Moscow in Russia’s evolving relations with the West.
Mr. Dodik’s office in the Republika Srpska did not respond to a request for comment.
The good news, according to Mr. Lagumdzija, is that the Biden administration has appointed a slate of seasoned emissaries to the region, including U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill, who helped negotiate Dayton in 1995; and U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Michael Murphy, who told RFE/RL last year that Washington is committed to Bosnia’s “territorial integrity, sovereignty and security, and multiethnic character.”
Mr. Lagumdzija also praised Mr. Biden’s recent nomination of James O’Brien, another member of the Dayton team, as assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasia.
“The Americans have a full all-star lineup…Nominating Jim O’Brien sends a clear signal that Washington is taking this part of the world more seriously, particularly with regard to the region’s correlation to Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Mr. Lagumdzija said.
But for the U.S. and the EU to truly pull the region away from Russian influence, economic investment is needed. “The time is now for the Europeans to give us clear support, to integrate the Western Balkans economically through free trade in Western Europe,” Mr. Lagumdzija said.
“This is a concrete step that the European Union could take in order to show people in the Balkans that Western Europe is serious about accepting us,” he said. “It’s not just about European economic capacity. It’s about European political and moral capacity. The Western Balkans is less than 1% of the GDP of the European Union. All of the Western Balkans’ GDP is 10 times smaller than the GDP of Spain.”
“Russian attempts to meddle and sow division in the region are real and is a core reason why I accepted the invitation of President Denis Becirovic to go to the United Nations, because we want to be sure as a U.N. member state that we can confront this meddling,” Mr. Lagumdzija said, asserting that his “priority is also to push to achieve sustainable development goals to support reforms with the transformative power of the U.N.’s Agenda 2030 as peace and nation building tools.”
“Any attempt to create a situation that results in separatist movement by the Republic Srpska from Bosnia would be a violation of international law and we need to speak out about this,” he added. “Under the circumstances of the war in Ukraine, Putin may think that he can transfer the instability here to this region. We are not going to allow that to happen.”