European Western Balkans

Will NATO replace EUFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Photo: EUFOR

The mandate of the European Union Force (EUFOR) Operation ALTHEA in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been launched in 2004 with the main objective of securing a Safe and Secure Environment in BiH, is subject to a annual renewal by the UN Security Council and the current mandate is set to expire on 3 November. As this date approached, concerns over its renewal are once again being raised. The possibility of Russia’s veto on the extension of the EU-led military operation, which has almost doubled its personnel in BiH since the war in Ukraine began, caused unease not only in Sarajevo, but in Banja Luka as well.

Milorad Dodik changed his attitude towards EUFOR mission extension when it became apparent that NATO would step in if EUFOR has to go. With the recent developments in Ukraine, it’s unclear whether Dodik’s plea to Putin will be enough to stop Russia from casting a veto in the Security Council. On the other hand, the Bosniak side has intensified communication with NATO officials, who emphasize NATO’s commitment towards peace and security in BiH. This commitment is likely to result in engagement of NATO forces in the case of Russian veto on EUFOR extension.

Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview for Vijesti that “NATO is ready to strengthen political and practical support to partners who are at risk of Russian aggression, including Bosnia and Herzegovina.” The Madrid Summit 2022 Declaration also states that Bosnia and Herzegovina will, together with Georgia and Moldova, receive support in order to “build integrity and resilience, develop capabilities, and uphold political independence.”

At the time of such a high tension between NATO and Russia, there is a growing concern that the security arrangements around Europe, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina, might be disrupted. In February, right after the war in Ukraine started, EUFOR deployed additional 500 personnel, bringing the total number of EUFOR forces in BiH up to 1100, followed by deployment of a German military contingent of approximately 50 people in mid-August. The increase of personnel incited reactions from the Russian embassy in Sarajevo who “accused the West of NATOisation of BiH.” Given that the previous extension of EUFOR mandate in 2021 didn’t go smoothly either, with Russia denouncing the report of High Representative Christian Schmidt, the burning question ahead of tomorrow’s UNSC session remains: Will Russia cast a veto on EUFOR mandate extension and will NATO take its place in case this scenario happens?

We asked international security experts from Sarajevo and Banja Luka to weigh in on this topic. While Alija Kožljak, professor at Burch University in Sarajevo, stated that the war in Ukraine jeopardized the security situation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to a certain extent and that NATO will get involved in case the mandate of EUFOR is not renewed, professor Miloš Šolaja from the University of Banja Luka thinks that vetoing the mandate of EUFOR and opening the door for expanded NATO involvement is not in Russia’s interest, nor it would be good for political stability in the country.

Professor Šolaja said that the key to ensuring peace and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be in “stabilization of internal politics” by reaching a consensus among the three nations on the most important political issues, including security, as well as building trust towards the institutions of BiH.

“Otherwise, there will be constant uncertainty that cannot be prevented by any armed force, neither internal nor foreign,” as he warned.

Professor Kožljak considers the security situation in BiH “under a threat of a combination of internal and external factors which have demonstrated a potential to act together,” which NATO understood as well. He explained that the mentioning of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Madrid Summit Declaration laid out the plan of assistance that NATO will provide with the aim of minimizing the threats in BiH.

“This assistance includes strengthening the security and defense capacities of the state through support in removing obstacles to the efficient functioning of state institutions, strengthening the defense capabilities of BiH through support programs for the modernization and development of the Armed Forces of BiH, raising the level of interoperability of the defense and security institutions of BiH, assistance in the fight against cyber attacks et cetera,” as Kožljak illustrated.

According to him, this demonstrates the commitment of NATO to increase its engagement in providing security in BiH, even before the results of the voting become known.

What is to be expected after 3 November?

Alija Kožljak said that it is “very likely” NATO will replace EUFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the event of Russian veto to the extension of the EUFOR mission, having in mind the “statements from both organizations, but also from EU and NATO member states.” He stated that the messages from the aforementioned NATO Summit in Madrid go in line with this assumption and that the support NATO pledged to BiH “refers to the possibility of non-extension of the ALTHEA mission.”

On the other hand, Miloš Šolaja doesn’t believe that Russia will cast a veto on 3 November because in the context of the war in Ukraine, it wouldn’t be in its interest to “start new conflicts or reactivate the old battlefields.” As a guarantor of the Dayton Agreement, Russia should aim towards securing peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Šolaja is also sceptic about the ground for NATO involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “even though NATO countries were the backbone of IFOR and SFOR.” He said that such a decision would have to be unilateral, unlike the UNSC approved missions that were mentioned, and would cause disagreements in the country.

“Considering the stance towards NATO of the Republic of Srpska, an important internal stakeholder and a subject in decision-making, the only certain thing in this scenario would be political instability, and thereby jeopardizing of security.”

However, Kožljak stated that NATO would in fact have the mandate to replace EUFOR on the basis of several UN Security Council resolutions, including the ones from 1995 and 1996 which gave NATO the mandate to maintain peace, security and stability in BiH, but also Resolution 1575 from 2004 “which gives a mandate to EUFOR for security in BiH, with the clause that NATO retains its mandate in BiH and engages if needed.”

It is this resolution, as well as the two previously mentioned, that are the basis for a more robust engagement of NATO, if the sufficiency of EUFOR to fulfill the assigned mandate of the UNSC from 2004 is questioned in any way. So, if the Russian Federation vetoes the extension of the ALTHEA mission, it prevents EUFOR from fulfilling its mandate, which activates the clause from Resolution 1575 and activates NATO’s mandate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been maintained at the level of the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo. In this case, its mandate would be strengthened with more robust troops, capable of ensuring stability in BiH, but also preventing other types of threats to the security of BiH, including possible aggressive actions,” Kožljak concluded.

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