An escalation of the war in Ukraine would be a disaster. That disaster would principally befall the Ukrainian people, but the war’s effects would ripple out far beyond Ukraine and could rewrite the rules of European security. This, in turn, would weaken global security institutions – which are already fragile. Despite its troubling tendency to invade its neighbours, Russia remains central to the UN system and particularly the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). An all-out war in Europe would leave the UN largely paralysed – as it was during much of the cold war.
But such paralysis is not the end of peacemaking. The crisis will inevitably create an imperative for Western states to work around Russia on issues where it has used its membership of the UNSC to frustrate peacebuilding and stabilisation efforts.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a good example of this.
The UNSC plans to review the situation in the country in November this year. The members of the institution will vote on the annual extension of EUFOR Althea, the EU military mission charged with maintaining peace and security in Bosnia. Russia holds a veto over the disposition of the 600 EUFOR troops stationed in Bosnia – a small and non-threatening mission that mostly consists of Hungarian, Austrian, and Turkish troops, and that lacks the personnel and equipment to protect Bosnia’s borders. As Russia is aware of EUFOR’s weakness, it is not interested in ending the mission. Rather, it has been using its veto over EUFOR’s mandate to obtain concessions that weaken American and European political initiatives in Bosnia. These initiatives are designed to support the country’s constitutional reforms and provide it with the agency in foreign policy it needs to make progress towards NATO and EU membership.
One can infer how Russia intends to use the UNSC to achieve its goals from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments at a Moscow press conference with his German counterpart on 18 January 2022. Although the discussion focused on Ukraine, Lavrov explicitly mentioned Bosnia. He emphasised that it is in Russia’s interest for international actors to reach a consensus in all their decisions on the future of Bosnia. He was implicitly referring to Berlin’s choice to circumvent UNSC approval and ignore Russian opposition to the recent appointment of German politician Christian Schmidt as the new high representative for Bosnia, the institutional guardian of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Moscow is eager to shut down the Office of the High Representative (OHR) altogether and was fervently opposed to this appointment. It fears that a reinforced version of the institution will regain its role in safeguarding Bosnia’s sovereignty and supporting the constitutional reforms Bosnia requires for both EU and NATO accession.
It is for this reason that Russia threatened to veto the renewal of EUFOR Althea at a UNSC meeting in November last year. Moscow managed to eliminate all references to the OHR and to prevent Schmidt from appearing in person to present his report. The report warns of the most severe existential threat Bosnia has faced since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995.
Russia’s behaviour on Bosnia is telling of its ambitions and tactics, as well its desire to reduce Western leverage and undermine Western political projects beyond the former Soviet space. Russia is working to achieve these goals across multiple theatres. And its ambition to draw up a new international security architecture – one that marginalises the United States and NATO – extends to regions where the US and its European allies have traditionally taken a leading role on security. In all these regions, Western states have invested a great deal of time, money, and political capital in peacebuilding and democratic reforms. In Bosnia as in Ukraine, Russia’s objective is to keep the country out of NATO and NATO forces out of the country, and to weaken the US politically and militarily. The Kremlin’s approach to this is simple: shut down the Western executive presence in the form of the OHR, within which the US still appoints the principal deputy high representative; prevent constitutional reform that can only happen with American support; and ensure that the central government remains incapable of gaining the foreign policy agency it needs to make decisions on NATO and EU membership.
Moscow pursues its agenda across different theatres à la carte – choosing when to violate the rules and when to use international law to undermine Western influence. It uses the threat of brute force against Ukraine to extract concessions from the West, hoping to regain what it regards as its rightful sphere of influence. If Moscow was to succeed in the effort, this would constitute an outright breach of international law on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. In Bosnia, the Kremlin tries to exploit such law to remove the OHR, demands a consensus in international institutions, uses its power at the UNSC to reduce Western leverage, and supports secessionist actors who are actively undermining Bosnia’s sovereignty.
The West should not allow Russia to set the terms of international institutions’ engagement with a country that is on the European Union’s border and that is so important to European security. Russia’s use of a veto over EUFOR last year led to concessions that were largely symbolic and did not affect the work of the OHR (which is already beset by many problems). But it will not stop there. Next year, Russia is likely to go further – at a minimum, demanding a date for the closure of the OHR or perhaps political concessions to its proxies, who are currently pursuing a destabilising agenda on the ground that Moscow endorses.
Germany and its allies on the UNSC need to plan how to maintain the EU military presence in Bosnia, whose mandate should not be contingent on Russia’s goodwill. To effectively respond to Russian blackmail, NATO should demonstrate its willingness replace EUFOR if Russia blocks the deployment of the force. In this, NATO would derive its mandate directly from the Dayton Peace Agreement and would need to seek a political commitment from its key member states to maintain peace and stability in Bosnia. To be clear: Russia does not want NATO to replace EUFOR. But the West will be in a stronger negotiating position if NATO makes a credible commitment to do so unless Moscow relents.
Meanwhile, a bigger question will arise if Russian forces launch a major offensive against Ukraine: how much longer will Western democracies let Russia set the terms of European security by exploiting the system of international norms and rules that it regularly violates?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.