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The U.K.’s Bold Bosnia Policy Slaps Down Russian-Backed Separatists

Sarajevo’s hopes of NATO accession are growing as London steps in.

By , a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (left) and members of Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic (center) and Milorad Dodik (right
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (left) and members of Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic (center) and Milorad Dodik (right
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (left) and members of Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic (center) and Milorad Dodik (right) pose before a meeting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on May 26. Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images

The visit of U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to Sarajevo last week was a landmark event in the politics of the contemporary Western Balkans. Truss’s appearance in the Bosnian capital was the culmination of a quiet campaign by the United Kingdom for the last year to buttress London’s posture in the region. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.K. now believes that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the linchpin to the region’s stability, an opinion in sharp contrast with Washington’s and Brussels’s long-term policy of accommodating the Kremlin-aligned regime in Serbia.

While discussion about the growing geopolitical salience of the Western Balkans had become familiar following the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, U.K. policy has made Balkan security a priority in a way that no other Western power has.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s centrality in the Johnson government’s view of the Western Balkans is particularly noticeable. On the back of a protracted secession crisis, fueled by the country’s Serb nationalist leadership in Republika Srpska, one of the two administrative units that make up the postwar Bosnian state, the U.K. government and Parliament alike have undertaken a series of major diplomatic and political initiatives that have established the U.K. as arguably the most significant major foreign power in the region. And virtually the entirety of this engagement has focused on buttressing the political stability and security capacities of the government in Sarajevo against the separatist aspirations of the Milorad Dodik regime in Republika Srpska.

The visit of U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to Sarajevo last week was a landmark event in the politics of the contemporary Western Balkans. Truss’s appearance in the Bosnian capital was the culmination of a quiet campaign by the United Kingdom for the last year to buttress London’s posture in the region. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.K. now believes that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the linchpin to the region’s stability, an opinion in sharp contrast with Washington’s and Brussels’s long-term policy of accommodating the Kremlin-aligned regime in Serbia.

While discussion about the growing geopolitical salience of the Western Balkans had become familiar following the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, U.K. policy has made Balkan security a priority in a way that no other Western power has.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s centrality in the Johnson government’s view of the Western Balkans is particularly noticeable. On the back of a protracted secession crisis, fueled by the country’s Serb nationalist leadership in Republika Srpska, one of the two administrative units that make up the postwar Bosnian state, the U.K. government and Parliament alike have undertaken a series of major diplomatic and political initiatives that have established the U.K. as arguably the most significant major foreign power in the region. And virtually the entirety of this engagement has focused on buttressing the political stability and security capacities of the government in Sarajevo against the separatist aspirations of the Milorad Dodik regime in Republika Srpska.

Dodik is the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite state presidency, but he is also the de facto strongman ruler of Republika Srpska. Since coming to power in the entity in 2006, he and his SNSD bloc have consistently and explicitly pursued a secessionist agenda, a campaign backed by the governments of Serbia and Russia. In the fall of 2021, Dodik’s regime began taking its most radical steps to date, initiating the creation of parallel state institutions, including threats of forming its own breakaway armed forces and border police.

The U.K. has correctly identified in Dodik a clear threat to the Bosnian state and, accordingly, has undertaken a series of policies that aim to check his machinations and (indirectly) the schemes of his enablers, from his bedrock benefactors in Moscow and Belgrade, to his newfound associates in Zagreb and Budapest.

Convening a session of the House of Commons on the deteriorating political situation in Bosnia in December 2021, Member of Parliament Alicia Kearns was forthright: “One might ask why Dodik feels so emboldened to act in this way. When threatening the secession of Republika Srpska, Dodik stated: ‘If anybody tries to stop us, we have friends who will defend us.’ Those friends … are Russia, Serbia, China, and even a handful of EU member states.” It was Kearns’s follow-up, however, that resonated: “Dodik must learn that Bosnia also has friends, with none more committed to Bosnia’s stability than the U.K.”

Not since the days of then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden’s furious Senate speeches, lambasting the Clinton administration’s halfhearted support for Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, had a Western legislator so stridently championed the cause of Bosnia’s sovereignty. That same day, the prime minister’s office announced the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach as its new Western Balkans envoy. Peach was not the first regional envoy appointed—the United States and the European Union had already named their own diplomats to this portfolio—but his military rather than diplomatic background is unique. With Peach having previously served as chief of the U.K.’s Defence Staff and chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, his appointment appeared to put immediate weight to Kearns’s warning to Dodik.

In the following months, a series of high-profile British delegations, from both chambers of Parliament, made visits to Sarajevo. Then in April of this year, the U.K. became only the second country, after the United States, to impose sanctions on Dodik. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government went a step further still, unilaterally sanctioning Zeljka Cvijanovic, the serving president of Republika Srpska and one of Dodik’s closest collaborators. The official justification for the designation was also clear-eyed: “Emboldened by Russia’s undermining of the international rules-based system, both individuals have used their positions of authority to push for de facto secession of Republika Srpska … in direct contravention of the country’s constitution.”

But it was Truss’s speech in Sarajevo on May 26 that cemented the magnitude of the policy shift underway. To begin with, the foreign secretary delivered her remarks in the capital’s 19th-century Army Hall to an audience of Bosnian armed forces, Bosnia’s defense minister, and the chief of the Joint Staff. The speech itself was, from a Bosnian perspective, one that had been decades in the making. Truss opened with an explicit acknowledgment of the failures of the West’s response to the aggression against Bosnia: “The West took too long to act in the 1990s. We were not bold enough to prevent terrible events such as the genocide at Srebrenica. This hesitancy only prolonged the fighting. Sarajevo suffered under siege for 1,425 days. We should have acted sooner.” The lessons of that failure, she argued, should inform the West’s collective response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She concluded by making a likewise unambiguous commitment to Bosnia’s security, calling for a deepening of both U.K.-Bosnia and Bosnia-NATO ties.

The significance of the U.K.’s interest simply cannot be overstated for Bosnia. While the United States is the architect and primary guarantor of the Dayton Accords, which contain Bosnia’s constitution, successive U.S. administrations have largely defaulted to the EU’s primacy in Bosnia—despite the evident death of the regional enlargement project. Hopes that the Biden administration would significantly reboot the United States’ Bosnia policy were quickly quashed. Now, Bosnians see in Britain the aegis of a powerful partner.

Aside from the possibility that Whitehall’s own wariness with the dithering Europeans will also influence the view in the White House, Sarajevo will be keen to deepen its defense ties with the United Kingdom. British assistance in modernizing the arsenal of the Bosnian armed forces and their NATO interoperability capacities would have an immediate impact.

But for Bosnia, there is no more existential foreign-policy concern than clinching NATO membership. Kearns has already explicitly urged her government to beef up its commitments to NATO’s Sarajevo headquarters. But the U.K. could also replicate the security pacts it has recently made with Poland and Ukraine and with Sweden and Finland. As Truss and the prime minister have already recognized, Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are also challenged by Russia and its regional proxies. A British-Bosnian defense agreement would have a massive chilling effect on such plans and would significantly strengthen NATO’s overall credibility in the region while bringing Sarajevo closer into the fold of the alliance.

Whatever questions might have existed about the U.K.’s post-Brexit stature in international affairs have been dispelled by its forceful commitments in Eastern Europe. In Bosnia, that engagement may prove especially sober by uniquely positioning the U.K. as a deciding factor in preventing the continent’s next major security crisis.

Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe. He is the author of the book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans. Twitter: @JasminMuj

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