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Twenty-five years ago, the Dayton Peace Accords ended Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Yet Bosnia and Herzegovina remains the most fragile country in the Balkans. Russia’s current strategy of using Bosnia’s deep religious and ethnic divisions to foment instability is working. In order to prevent a new and costly conflict in Bosnia, the West needs to confront Russia’s growing influence. It urgently needs new policies if it is to do so.

Putin is using the Balkans as a bargaining chip. Moscow uses its sway over local power-brokers to blackmail relevant countries with threats to generate conflict. It has applied this strategy across Eurasia, using its influence in Nagorno-Karabakh; in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; in Moldova through Transdniestria, and in Ukraine through Crimea and the Donbas.

Bosnia’s convoluted political composition makes it ideally suited for such interference. Despite the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, the nation remains starkly divided among Catholic Croats, Muslims Bosniaks and Orthodox Christian Serbs. Each group has a president, and every eight months they take turns running the country. Administratively, Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into two entities: the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the predominantly Serbian Republika Srpska.

Putin backs Bosnia’s Serbs and their president, Milorad Dodik. He views them as guarantees against Bosnian membership in NATO and the European Union. The Dayton Accords don’t allow them an army, yet Russia has ignored that ban and armed the Bosnian Serb police with thousands of automatic rifles. Dodik has cultivated close ties with Russian paramilitary groups, and Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups have received training from Russian soldiers. Putin has also openly supported Dodik in elections and recognizes him as Bosnia’s official president.

Now, Dodik has announced that Republika Srpska will secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that he “will not be stopped by the United States or anyone else.” He has threatened to do so before, usually in the run-up to elections, and his threats have been viewed as political bluster. With no upcoming election and Dodik’s line hardening, secession now seems plausible.

EU and U.S. officials have called secession a “red line,” “unacceptable,” and “counterproductive.” So the stage is set for a standoff between the West and Russia, along its Serb allies. Dodik is also demanding the eviction of foreign judges (mandated by the Dayton Accord) from Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. He has given the court a 60-day deadline to comply with his demands. Finally, Bosnian Serb lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to suspend their parliament.

This situation is strengthening Russia’s hand in Europe. Secession could lead to renewed war in the Balkans, which the West wants to prevent. By encouraging Dodik, Putin can extract concessions from the West regarding Ukraine, Belarus and economic sanctions. Beyond this, it appears to make the West’s plans to incorporate the Western Balkans into NATO and the European Union unfeasible. Why would Western nations provide security guarantees to countries that are still killing each other over politics, religion and ethnicity?

Western strategy needs to counter Russian interference in Bosnia and Herzegovina while incentivizing Republika Srpska’s integration with the West. But given the foreign policy fragmentation of EU member states, it falls on the Americans to do so.

Washington should start with a vocal condemnation of Russia’s policies in Bosnia. The U.S. embassy in Sarajevo recently released a joint statement with the embassies of the UK, France, Germany and Italy, declaring their desire for a “stable, functional and prosperous Bosnia,” and that any “unilateral withdrawal from institutions” would be “unacceptable.” American statements need to go beyond this, though, as it is Russian support that has emboldened Bosnia’s Serbs to threaten secession.

The United States and the European Union should acknowledge Milorad Dodik’s influence and co-opt him, not isolate him. The United States sanctioned Dodik for “obstructing the Dayton Accords” in 2017, which pushed him further into the Russian camp. Removing the sanctions and providing investment to the Republika Srpska could incentivize Dodik to back down, while introducing a wedge between him and Russia. At the same time, the EU, NATO, and US should make it clear that they will hold Dodik responsible for renewed violence in Bosnia – same as they did to guilty politicians in the last Bosnian war.

In the long term, a permanent political solution that provides for economic growth and integration with Europe is needed for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its fractured politics have left it with a stagnant economy and unresolved ethnic and religious tensions. It is thus ripe for conflict. NATO and the United Nations need to be vigilant about Russian destabilization attempts and coordinate a governance system that enables Bosnia to prosper. The West needs to stop Russia before Vladimir Putin returns Bosnia to the bloodshed of the 1990s.

Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow and Max Frost is a Senior Associate at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are the authors' own.