One place you might not expect former Trump presidential campaign staff to pop up is next to Bosnian Serb separatists, at campaign rallies in the Bosnian town of Derventa. Or at least, not until you become aware that said Bosnian Serb separatists, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), are eager clients of Moscow.
Given the work that many in the Trump campaign have done throughout Eastern Europe as lobbyists for Russian state interests in recent years, it is hardly surprising that even more Trump apparatchiks like Landon Tucker Davis, Jason Osborne and Mike Rubino are also looking to cash in from the Kremlin – except now in full view of the world as registered foreign agents, so as to not risk federal prosecution back in the US. The concept of decorum is well and truly dead.
But this is not a story about Trump links to Russia. This is much more serious than that. Putin is once again looking to stir conflict in the Balkans. And he is aiming to kick things off before any more former Russian client states can join the European Union.
This is a new emerging front in Putin’s war on the West. And like Ukraine, this conflict looks headed towards violent confrontation yet again. Except this time, with full cooperation from American elements associated with the US President.
Milorad Dodik, the President of the autonomous Republika Srpska and leader of the SNSD, is under sanctions by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for undermining the Dayton Accords which brought peace to Bosnia in 1995. He is looking at his new American friends to persuade President Trump to rescind these “Obama sanctions”.
Putin’s aim for the region is a live, low-level conflict like the one in Eastern Ukraine, which would paralyse the European ambitions of the region’s pro-Western governmentsDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Doing so, would vindicate Dodik’s separatist ambitions, and push the situation closer to direct confrontation between the Republika Srpska and the rest of Bosnia. Who would win then is rather besides the point.
Putin’s aim for the region is a live, low-level conflict like the one in Eastern Ukraine, which would paralyse the European ambitions of the region’s pro-Western governments. And he is more than happy to pay the price in Serb and Bosniak blood indefinitely to achieve this goal.
Europe can and should respond to this emerging threat. Serbia itself does have ambitions of joining the European Union. This gives Europe leverage to lean on Belgrade to curb the enthusiasm of the separatist Serbs in the Bosnian Republika Srpska. The nominal ambition of the separatists is to join Serbia, and Belgrade can scupper that ambition unilaterally.
For their part, Putin and Dodik could continue down the path of separatism regardless, and aim for independence for Republika Srpska. That would still satisfy Dodik’s compulsive urge to distance himself from “the Muslims”, as well as Putin’s aim to stoke conflict in the region.
But this conflict would then be entirely contained to Republika Srpska, and would not stand in the way of European integration for Serbia, Albania and so on. And the inevitable futility of the bloodshed will serve to undermine both nationalism and the Kremlin’s influence in the region, as their neighbours who put nationalist conflict behind them reap the rewards of alignment with the West.
Whether European and Serbian leaders are awake to the dangers looming over the Bosnian horizon and whether they have the wherewithal to move in proactively to contain the situation remains to be seen. But we all need to keep our eyes peeled for continued bizarre occurrences in both Republika Srpska and other parts of the Balkans, as Putin is throwing his weight around in an effort to reopen old wounds and re-ignite the fires of old conflicts.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.