Matthew Palmer told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that Bosnia is facing its “most serious challenges since the 1990s,” when it was embroiled in a bloody, ethnically driven war that saw at least 100,000 killed during three years of fighting.
And those challenges, left unchecked, could have “serious consequences” for the western Balkans, Europe and the United States, Palmer said.
Near-term solutions could include moving troops into key areas ahead of the elections this fall to counter any move by Russian forces, and putting in place a NATO membership action plan for Bosnia as early as July, experts said.
The top general in NATO, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told senators in March that the biggest threat Europe faces is Russian influence and aggression in the Balkans.
If the elections fail and a government is not produced from the process, Palmer said, Bosnia could face a “prolonged post-election crisis.”
While he cautioned that those events might not result in bloodshed, they do offer more opportunities for Russia.
“Most importantly, such internal problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina open the door to maligned actors such as Russia,” Palmer said. “Which is intent on sowing chaos in the region and thwarting Bosnia’s Euroatlantic future.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, who chairs the committee, asked Palmer to quantify how close the nation is to a major crisis and if that could spill over to its neighbors or be contained.
Palmer was reluctant to answer with a specific number, calling it a “complex hypothetical question.”
Palmer stressed that Russian goals are at odds with both the United States and Europe.
Bosnia has been on a path to join the European Union, a move that Russia seems to thwart with any nation near its borders.
“We’re working to help the countries of the Western Balkans integrate into European and Euro Atlantic institutions,” Palmer said. “The Russians are working assiduously to sow distrust and discord. This is of concern to us. It’s concern to us what it is that’s happening at the state to state level.”
Russia is sowing distrust and chaos, Palmer said, primarily through disinformation campaigns.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, wanted to know what military capabilities are in the hands of the different Balkan factions.
“There’s certainly plenty of weapons that are sloshing around, though, in the Western Balkans,” Palmer said.
He added that the Bosnian army has some heavy weapons, artillery and tanks, and their air force has helicopters.
Sasha Toperich, a senior fellow at Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, told the committee members that if the United States does not act to ensure a proper election, there is danger of political instability that “will inevitably lead to regional instability, which will only play into Russia to further pursue her agenda.”
He advised that the United States work with NATO partners on a political decision and a NATO action plan for Bosnia and Herzegovina by July to counter Russian influence.
Perry wanted more specifics on what Russia is doing or could do to gain more of a foothold in the region.
Kurt Bassuener, co-founder of the Democratization Policy Council said there is Russian special forces training happening and a new training center is nearly open outside Banja Luka, the largest city in the Republic of Srpska, a legal territory within Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin could fly paratroopers into Banja Luka.
Bassuener said to prevent that, allied nations could move security forces into certain areas.
“It’s open season,” Bassuener said. The territory could be secured to prevent “really negative” problems before tensions rise in the October elections.