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While fueling Ukraine proxy war, NATO and EU are militarizing the Balkans

The proxy war in Ukraine threatens to drag the Balkans into a larger regional conflict, as the US, EU, and NATO militarize Bosnia and increase pressure on Serbia, and Ukrainian drones crash in Croatia.

EUFOR Bosnia NATO militarization Balkans
EUFOR forces do a military patrol through civilians areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina in March 2022

While much of the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine, the NATO-affiliated European Union Force (EUFOR) mission deployed combat troops to Bosnia, to the city of Banja Luka, on April 20.

These soldiers were sent to the Balkans ostensibly to monitor a peaceful protest organised by a Bosnian Serb veterans’ organisation, which was supported by the Bosnian Serb ruling party and its president Milorad Dodik.

The increasing visibility of EUFOR and NATO troops in Bosnia is exacerbating already high tensions in the former Yugoslav countries, following the dramatic escalation of violence in Ukraine this year.

The EUFOR intervention in Banja Luka followed similar “pre-cautionary” demonstrations of force in Bosnia over the last several months, including flyovers by French fighter jets and exercises in which EUFOR troops marched down commercial streets in central Sarajevo and drove around civilian areas in armored vehicles.

The protests in Banja Luka result from conflicting interpretations of jurisdiction under the Dayton Agreement, the deal that ended Bosnia’s four-year civil war in 1995.

The Dayton Accords established a tenuous political system for Bosnia and Herzegovina which saw power divided between two “entities” along the armistice line: the Croat and Muslim “Federation” and Serb “Republic”.

While Dayton formally incorporates Russia and other non-NATO countries into its oversight body, the agreement is in practice administered by NATO governments and by Austria, which together appoint a “High Representative” who has sweeping powers to overrule democratic decisions of the respective entity governments.

While nominally neutral, Austria plays a key role in implementing NATO policy in Bosnia, and its status within the former Yugoslav republics as a historic colonial power and major foreign investor undermine its claims to objectivity.

Dayton also laid the framework for what in effect became a permanent military occupation of Bosnia, first directly under NATO, and later under a joint EU-NATO operation known as the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina, or EUFOR.

EUFOR symbol

The symbol of EUFOR

While the ostensible purpose of EUFOR is to prevent the re-emergence of armed conflict between Muslims and Serbs, its contribution to regional and inter-community security is ambiguous at best, and the military occupation of Bosnia is routinely used by the West to exert political domination over the region.

In 2014, a wave of anti-privatization and anti-corruption protests began in Tuzla, a mainly Muslim mining town in Bosnia known for a tradition of socialist and labour militancy.

The protests were notable for broad solidarity between Muslim, Croat, and Serb protestors, and the shared contempt for the dysfunctional administrative structures and nationalist elites (including the aforementioned Dodik) created by Dayton.

In response, the Western-appointed High Representative threatened to suppress the protests with Austrian troops.

In a region with vivid recent memories of a horrific civil war, such Western threats were sufficient to send protestors home.

US and European Union emphasize role of Balkans amid Ukraine war

In response to Russia’s military incursion in Ukraine this February, the United States, European Union, and NATO have increased their activities with EUFOR, holding meetings featuring senior representatives from the US, UK, Germany, France, and Italy.

This March, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, traveled to Bosnia to meet with EUFOR leadership.

Then in April, a bipartisan group of US senators took a tour of the Balkans to, in their own words, “convey continued U.S. support for its allies amid Russian aggression against Ukraine and the implications for European security in the region.”

Democratic and Republican senators met with representatives from EUFOR and NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The US embassy in Sarajevo said the meeting was held “to discuss ways we can bolster cooperation and partnership.”

EUFOR commanders have likewise been coordinating with the US ambassador to Bosnia, Michael J. Murphy, stressing “the importance of shared cooperation and partnership.”

This Western coordination threatens to drag the Balkans into a larger geopolitical conflict.

Ukrainian explosive-armed drone accidentally hits Croatia

Bosnia is not the only former Yugoslav country where NATO’s contributions to peace and security are dubious.

In March, a Tupolev Tu-141 drone carrying a bomb entered Croatian airspace via Hungary and crashed in a residential neighbourhood in central Zagreb, likely as a result of an error.

Tupolev Tu-141 drone

A Tupolev Tu-141 drone

It was later revealed that this drone, which is similar to a cruise missile, belonged to the Ukrainian military, and had sought to attack Russian forces.

While no one was hurt, the passage of the explosive-armed drone through hundreds of kilometres of NATO airspace without being intercepted raised questions in Croatia about the ability of NATO to provide for the country’s safety.

Western pressure on Serbia

The Serbian and Bosnian Serb governments have faced increasing pressure from Western governments seeking to harm bilateral relations with Russia, despite their repeated statements deploring the escalation of violence in Ukraine and calling for a peaceful resolution for the conflict.

This pressure led Serbia to vote in the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, which was a broadly unpopular move within Serbia.

According to the stated goals of US policy, the pressure on Serbia makes little sense: Serbia is a small, middle-income country that plays no role in Russia’s war effort.

Serbian neutrality is much less important for Russia than the roles played by Israel and Turkey, which unlike Serbia, have received little criticism in the Western press for their ambiguous position in the conflict.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has repeatedly implied that the pressures placed on his country are intended to destabilize the Balkans, not to help Ukraine.

Whatever one thinks of Vučić or the war, given the pattern of facts, this explanation is more plausible than the official Western one.

The Kosovo precedent

The Serbian government has also expressed its concerns with Russia’s invocation of the 1999 NATO intervention in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro) as a legal pretext for Russia’s own actions in Ukraine.

NATO’s 1999 intervention, conducted intentionally without UN Security Council authorization partly as a demonstration of NATO’s willingness to act unilaterally in violation of international law, nonetheless offered a flimsy legal pretext for military action: it first recognized a secessionist republic in Kosovo before immediately bombing Serbia to protect it.

While Kosovo independence has never received broad international recognition – mainly because of the global consensus that its secession and NATO’s intervention were both in direct violation of the UN charter – NATO was nonetheless able to force Serbia to accept a permanent occupation of Kosovo after 78 days of bombing.

Camp Bondsteel, that US Army base that hosts NATO’s Kosovo presence, is a key logistics hub for military operations across Asia. It is one of the world’s largest US military bases and has been implicated in grave human rights violations by US personnel, including rendition.

Much like the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Camp Bondsteel’s location in a legal grey area, under military occupation and without civilian oversight, offers advantages for covert operations.

Camp Bondsteel Kosovo Ukraine soldiers

Ukrainian soldiers being trained at the US Army’s Camp Bondsteel base in Kosovo in 2010

Proxy conflict in the Balkans

As in Bosnia, the constant threat of renewed NATO aggression is an ever-present phantom in Serbian politics.

Despite claims that its military occupations are intended to preserve regional stability, NATO has never demonstrated a desire to see durable peace and reconciliation among the Balkan countries.

On the contrary, perceived regional instability is a reliable pretext for maintaining a permanent military presence in a strategic location, without the democratic oversight, control, or transparency that would come with regular NATO membership.

The Balkans have experienced major wars every few decades throughout the history of modern states – often proxy conflicts between neighbouring superpowers – and during a period of intensified conflict in Europe, the region needs renewed diplomacy, not militarist provocations.

Yet in line with NATO’s maximalist, escalatory posture in Ukraine itself – explicitly seeking to sacrifice Ukraine in an apocalyptic proxy war to weaken Russia – NATO has done nothing to secure or reassure the peoples of the Balkans.

Perhaps the biggest danger is the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Claims that the region is doomed to instability and violence risk feeding an escalatory cycle that may bring about the very violence one hopes to avoid.

While this may be good news for Western arms manufacturers, it does nothing to protect the lives of Croats or Albanians.

Despite racist lies about “ancient ethnic hatreds” and violent cultures, however, armed conflict and instability have been repeatedly imposed on the Balkans by self-interested foreign powers, exploiting the same internal fractures and divisions that exist anywhere else.

It is external provocations that threaten the region, not any fundamental conflicts between its peoples.

None of this is to say that recent Russian diplomacy in the region has been particularly positive either. Remarks by Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Igor Kalabukhov, were widely condemned, after he threatened retaliatory action should the country begin a process of NATO accession, citing Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine as an example of a possible response.

Escalatory rhetoric and actions on both sides – but particularly on the side of NATO, which has an extensive recent history of military aggression in the region and a significant military presence in both non-NATO former Yugoslav republics – is enhancing the grave danger of renewed violent conflict in the region.

Bombings in Transnistria threaten to expand war

The western Balkans is not the only place that has seen efforts from various actors to broaden the scope of the Russia-NATO proxy war by opening new fronts.

Transnistria, the disputed region on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, which hosts a small Russian peacekeeping force, was hit by a series of bombings of unknown origin this April, targeting government institutions and radio infrastructure.

Moldova’s pro-EU president Maia Sandu has made similar remarks to Vučić, suggesting efforts to destabilize the formally neutral country. Exactly which forces are encouraging escalation in each of these cases, and why, is not always clear.

Both Russia and NATO have acted in ways that undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker states, and both have engaged in escalatory rhetoric. However, efforts to prolong, intensify, and broaden the geographic scope of armed conflict, including efforts to draw Moscow into secondary proxy conflicts, are entirely consistent with the stated US program to maximize costs and destabilization within Russia itself.

The situation in Ukraine has made it abundantly clear that US policy makes no effort to protect its ostensible allies, including NATO members.

Not only does Washington see Ukrainian lives as an acceptable price to pay in a proxy conflict against Russia; economic devastation of Europe and explosive-armed drones landing in Zagreb are also acceptable.

This is an extremely dangerous period of history, for the Balkans, for Europe, and for the world.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even stated that the risk of a nuclear war in the current circumstances is “considerable.”.

Coordinated efforts to encourage diplomacy, de-escalation, and peace have never been more urgent.

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