As Russian influence grows in the Western Balkans and war breaks out in Ukraine, the leaders of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have said joining NATO would help protect regional security.
Since February 24, when President Vladimir Putin issued a full-scale invasion of Ukraine quote from Russia oppose Ukraine becoming a potential NATO member was of primary concern, fearing that the crisis could spread to the Western Balkans.
Russia’s alleged moves in the Western Balkans have been documented over the years and include efforts to facilitated coups in Montenegro and North Macedonia before becoming NATO members in 2017 and 2020, respectively.
As for Bosnia and Kosovo, after experiencing mass murders by Serb forces in the 1990s under then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, both countries considered joining the alliance. The transatlantic military alliance led by the United States is a strategic goal.
The pair remain the last non-NATO members in the region, aside from Serbia, which considers NATO its “enemy”.
In 1999, NATO waged a 78-day war against Serbia with the stated aim of stopping the Kosovo genocide against the Albanians.
Bosnia is currently participating in the Member Action Plan (MAP), which is seen as the “last step before achieving” [NATO] members”, according to Bosnian Defense Minister Sifet Podzic.
But as with Kyiv, Moscow opposed Sarajevo’s decision to go with NATO, despite their 2,400 km (1,500 mi) distance.
The Russian embassy in Sarajevo last year warned that Russia “will have to respond to this hostile act” if Bosnia takes steps towards membership.
Russian Ambassador to Bosnia Igor Kalabukhov reiterated this message last month in an interview with Bosnia TV, using Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as an example.
“If [Bosnia] choose to be a member of anything, that’s its internal business. But there is another thing, which is our response,” he said. “We showed what we expected on the example of Ukraine. If there are threats, we will respond.”
As for Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani, Kalabukhov’s warning shows that “Russia has destructive interests in our region”.
“They are particularly interested in attacking Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to some extent also [NATO member] Montenegro,” Osmani told Al Jazeera.
Serbia, seen as a proxy for Russia, could act on Moscow while feeling “encouraged by what is happening in mainland Europe,” she said.
“Russian influence in Serbia is not diminishing in size, it is actually increasing throughout the years.”
Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kosovo demanded an acceleration of NATO membership and a permanent US military base on its territory.
Osmani has since then request US President Joe Biden used Washington’s influence to get the country involved.
But four NATO members – Spain, Slovakia, Greece and Romania – have yet to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence from Serbia, further complicating its efforts.
Osmani said Kosovo first aims to join mechanisms like the Partnership for Peace, a NATO program that encourages cooperation with non-member countries.
“We talked to [NATO] members to make sure that everyone understands how indispensable membership is, especially in light of events in Ukraine,” Osmani emphasized political dialogue.
Podzic hopes that with the end of the Ukraine war, geopolitical relations will change and the importance of regional security will increase, possibly leading to Bosnia’s rapid NATO membership.
“But if we wait to fulfill all the criteria, unfortunately, it will take some time [to gain membership], because we don’t invest in security agencies, in military capabilities. We will need a lot of time to modernize the army, buy modern weapons,” Podzic said.
Bosnia stopped investing in the military around 2010 due to a lack of internal cohesion and obstacles stemming from the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, created with the sole goal of preventing war, he said.
Either way, Russia “will not decide on this,” Podzic said. “[Bosnians] will decide our path in the military alliance.”
Meanwhile, the defense budget of neighboring Serbia last year almost doubled from 2018 to about $1.5 billion.
Serbia, long seen by Brussels as a pioneer for European Union membership, is the only country in Europe, other than Belarus, that has not enacted economic sanctions against Russia.
Instead, the government and opposition have shown solidarity with Putin.
As EU countries canceled flights to Russia, Air Serbia doubled its flights between Belgrade and Moscow last month, only to cancel the decision a day later following backlash.
Moscow and Belgrade regularly display close ties.
On February 19, Serbian President Alexander Vucic, a populist this month win a landslide The election winner, said on state TV channel Tanjug that he would meet Russia’s top security official Nikolai Patrushev in Belgrade to discuss Moscow’s claim that “mercenaries” from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia was sent to fight on the Ukrainian side.
Officials from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia have denied the claims of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
But later that month, with new sanctions in place and countries in Europe barring Russian planes from entering their airspace, Patrushev was reportedly unable to land in Belgrade.
Osmani said the pro-Ukrainian mercenaries’ claims were “another piece of their propaganda”.
Regardless of the facts, some people in the EU continue to push for an active appeasement policy towards Vucic, which I believe is a big mistake, Osmani said.
We, the people of Kosovo, are still waiting to hear clear messages from the international community towards Serbia that they cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially when the two chairs are so far apart. a lot of. Unfortunately, we have yet to hear that clear language.”
She added that instead of encouraging countries to be fully aligned with the EU and NATO and their values, leaders like Vucic and Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik, “who really do everything that is completely contrary to EU values”, encouraged.