Vladimir Putin's meddling in Bosnia is latest sign of his grand strategy against the West – Bernard Jenkin MP

Not content with provoking two international crises already – Ukraine and Kazakhstan – on Sunday, Vladimir Putin gave his visible support for Serb paramilitaries to parade through the streets of Banja Luka, purporting to mark the creation of Republika Srpska, an independent Serbian entity in Bosnia Herzegovina.

Bosnian Serb police officers take part in a parade marking the Day of Republic Srpska, in Banja Luka, on Sunday, watched by the Russian ambassador to Bosnia, Igor Kalabuhov (Picture: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images)
Bosnian Serb police officers take part in a parade marking the Day of Republic Srpska, in Banja Luka, on Sunday, watched by the Russian ambassador to Bosnia, Igor Kalabuhov (Picture: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2009, the Constitutional Court, a product of the Dayton Peace Accord, ruled the celebrations illegal. The Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) refused to cooperate with the court.

The Russian president is deliberately undermining the Dayton Accords when Republika Sprpska was legally recognised by the international community as part of the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia Herzegovina.

It seems Putin wants to split this fragile state between Croatian and Serb interests, leaving the Bosnian Muslims once again with nowhere to go.

Between 1994 and 1998, an estimated 120,000 people were slaughtered in the Bosnian War, the bloodiest conflict in Europe since 1945. The United Nations estimates a further 2.2 million people were displaced.

Modern Bosnia relies on power-sharing between the three primary ethnic groups. There are two entities Republika Srpska (Serbian) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Croatian and Bosnian). There are three national presidents and a rotating chairman.

The fragile peace in the Balkans is at its most uncertain since the 1990s. In October, Milorad Dodik, the Serb-Bosnian president and leader of the SNSD, announced Republika Srpska would withdraw from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s armed forces, as well as key judicial and taxation bodies. Republika Srpska passed a law obliging the local authorities not to cooperate with national institutions attempting to implement state-level law.

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It would be a mistake to see the current crisis as a re-run of the 1990s. The language and myths of Serb nationalism date from the 19th century, but the external geopolitics driving today’s Serbian secessionists is Putin’s strategy, which seeks revenge for the humiliations of the Yeltsin era. Eastern Europe is means to that end. Sitting next to Milorad Dodik at the celebrations on Sunday was the Russian ambassador Igor Kalabuhov.

Russia is a member of the Peace Implementation Council, the international body set up to oversee the Bosnian peace process. They refused to agree to the appointment of Christain Schmidt, the High Commissioner responsible for the civilian implementation of the Dayton Accord. They opposed the decision by Valentin Inzko, Schmidt’s predecessor, to use his special powers to impose a law banning genocide denial. The Russian state funds “academic” conferences to muddy the official narrative of the genocide at Srebrenica.

On January 5, the United States announced a suite of sanctions against Dodik. The UK and EU could follow suit. In November, commenting on potential cuts to EU funding, Dodik claimed, “I even think that I like that… When I go to Putin there are no requests. He just says, ‘what is it I can help with?’ Whatever I discussed with him, I’ve never been cheated on it.”

He will be undeterred until Nato redeploys military force into the Brcko corridor to protect the political institutions of the Dayton Accord.

In his famous history of Bosnia, written during the 1990s conflict, Noel Malcolm demolished the myth that the country’s ethnic tensions were irreconcilable. “As for the lesson of history”, Malcolm argued, “what it indicated was not that Bosnia had to be kept in check by a larger power to prevent it from destroying itself from within, but almost the opposite: what had always endangered Bosnia was not any genuinely internal tensions but the ambitions of larger powers and neighbouring states.”

Dayton was, however, backed by Nato and the EU. For 20 years, the international community held the troubled legacy of the Bosnian war in check. The only thing worse than Western ‘liberal interventionism’ into foreign conflicts is its opposite. Nato and the EU have neglected to protect Dayton; bad actors have entered the void.

Nato and EU nations lack a credible strategy for dealing with Putin. We merely react piecemeal to his aggressive information war and military intimidation. The threat of the Ukrainian invasion has brought US President Joe Biden to the negotiating talks in Geneva, but western Europe has blundered into gas dependency on Russian supplies without adequate alternative supplies. Germany still looks set to approve Nord-Stream 2. Now Putin is manipulating gas markets and deliberately creating shortages.

The United Kingdom does not have a strategic centre capable of recognising the relationship between energy policy and geopolitics. Too often, “foreign policy” is junior desk officers writing reports on what’s happening, not about maximising our global power and influence in the given situation.

The Foreign Office has traditionally relied on “muddling through”. The UK has nothing comparable to the Russia’s 24/7/365 strategic HQ. Their hybrid war is based on grand strategy. This is not a fixed plan. They constantly rehearse, re-evaluate, game and re-plan how to disorient the West. It’s real purpose is to shore up Putin’s domestic credibility with the false narrative that somehow Russia is threatened by Nato.

Now we are outside the EU, we can dispense with the illusion that an EU common defence and security policy could ever have substituted for our own vigilance and commitment.

The recent integrated review of defence and security policy is a good start, but it fails to address not only implementation but also why the existing machinery of government cannot deliver the desired outcomes.

The SNP contributed constructively to Thursday’s Commons debate about Russia’s grand strategy. Unfortunately, while the SNP still insists on unilateral nuclear disarmament and an independent Scotland, they are playing into Putin’s hands.

Bernard Jenkin is the Conservative MP for Harwich & North Essex and chair of the Commons’ Liaison Committee, which is made up of all select committee chairs and scrutinises the work of the Prime Minister

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