Putin's Next Play

As I noted yesterday, Putin may be very opportunistic in his actions — something that has led the administration to gravely underestimate him — but he has a very steady strategic purpose in increasing Russian influence, creating a ring of buffer states, and sabotaging US and EU initiatives as a way of making Russia the more attractive ally.

Putin is now in Syria because he could not allow a long term client to be overthrown, something that would not only aid ISIS but hurt Russian and Iranian credibility.

In the next weeks to few months we can probably expect Russia to make another move in Europe, this one in the Balkans.

Russia has a long history of political and military involvement in the Balkans. Its harnessing of the Pan-Slavic movement to Russia strategic designs is one of the underlying causes of World War I. During the various wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, Russian “volunteers” served with Serb forces and, famously. the Russian army seized Pristina Airport before NATO forces could occupy it under the terms of a negotiated agreement.

Right now the Balkans could serve as a pressure point to unhinge NATO’s southern flank and cause a lot of mischief for the EU in the bargain.

When the Dayton Agreement was signed ending the Bosnia War in 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two administrative entities: the Muslim majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb majority Republika Srpska.


From Foreign Policy:

Nov. 21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Dayton peace agreement, which ended three-and-a-half years of brutal war between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. In Dayton, Ohio, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke achieved a major diplomatic victory that ended the conflict and established the foundations of a viable state. The Dayton agreement also created an internationally backed overseer called the high representative to implement the peace accords. To this day, Bosnia is a rare success story in post-conflict state-building. The anniversary should be a time for celebration.

Unfortunately, it may not turn out that way. The Dayton agreement created two highly autonomous entities inside Bosnia: the Bosniak-Croat majority federation and the Serb majority Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, plans to rain on the Dayton anniversary parade by openly violating the agreement on Nov. 15 in a move that many see as a thinly veiled independence referendum.

The scheduled plebiscite has only one question: “Do you support the unconstitutional and unauthorized imposition of laws by the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly the imposed laws on the Court and Prosecutor’s Office of [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and the implementation of their decisions on the territory of Republika Srpska?” Such a biased and leading question offers only one right answer. The referendum will give Dodik political and legal cover to order Republika Srpska institutions — from government administrators to tax collectors — to stop obeying state court orders, verdicts, and rulings, and to obstruct the work of the prosecutor’s office. This would undo 20 years of progress and commence the destruction of Bosnia’s legal order. While the referendum only addresses the judiciary, its destructive intentions make it a de facto declaration of independence. Lest anyone doubt Dodik’s intentions, in April he announced that Republika Srpska will hold an independence referendum in 2018.

The referendum threat is unfolding amid a perfect storm generated by Dodik’s strident Serbian nationalism, a demonstrably flawed EU policy of appeasing him, Russian meddling in the Balkans, and the United States’ dangerous unwillingness to override the EU on Bosnia.

Did anyone notice a familiar theme in here? “Russian meddling” seems to be what’s for dinner these days. And “appeasement,” too.

By backing Dodik, Putin is able to create substantial problems for the West without needing to invest resources or diplomatic energy. This pattern should be familiar. From Abkhazia in Georgia to Transnistria in Moldova to most recently Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has sought to prevent Western encroachment in regions that it historically viewed as its own, yet had lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seems that if Moscow can’t control a certain territory, then it will opt to create a climate of instability that prevents the EU, the United States, and NATO from gaining a meaningful foothold. This holds true for the Balkans, which Russia has traditionally viewed as its sphere of influence. As neighboring Montenegro now moves closer to NATO membership, Moscow wishes to draw a line against further Western advances in the region.

Further complicating the picture is that the entire region is a dog’s breakfast of intermixed ethnic groups that often don’t like their neighbors very much and would like to be part of another country.

Hungary, whose neo-fascist government is flirting with Russia, has adopted the Russian view of extra-territorial nationalism. Under this theory, Hungary reserves the right to intervene in other nations to protect the rights of ethnic Hungarians. The specter of Republika Srpska withdrawing from Bosnia and Herzegovina and presumably joining with Serbia has caused anxiety in Bucharest because Romania has a huge Hungarian population that looks longingly to Hungary. Some of the EU’s efforts, like treating Kosovo as an independent country rather than a province of Serbia, are playing into Russian hands.

Republika Srpska declaring independence could strengthen the hand of Moscow’s main client state in the Balkans. I would challenge both NATO and the EU in their own backyard knowing that they will not react in any meaningful way. Once this region has declared independence then it opens the door to destabilizing the entire region by means of the “hybrid warfare” Russia has used in Ukraine, where ethnic identity is married to outside resources and foreign “volunteers” to create civil war, or the mere threat of it happening. And Russian influence would be the cost of making the threat go away.