The German government has paved the way to deploy troops with the European Union’s peacekeeping mission in Bosnia for the first time in a decade as concerns mount about instability from the Ukraine war spilling over to the Western Balkans.
Government spokesperson Steffen Seibert told journalists at a news conference in Berlin on Wednesday that the cabinet decided to send troops to EUFOR-Althea, which has been active since 2004.
Seibert said a maximum of 50 soldiers will be sent for one year, marking a return to the force in Bosnia that Germany left at the end of 2012.
Some of the troops are meant to staff two so-called liaison and observation teams, groups that are spread out in the country and function as sensors for the EUFOR command, while others will work at the headquarters in Sarajevo.
The decision by the Council of Ministers needs to be approved in the Bundestag, and Seibert said that after approval in parliament, German soldiers will serve until the end of next June and the period can be extended.
The German defence ministry also said the federal government decided to resume participation in the EU operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina at EUFOR-Althea.
“A stable Western Balkans region is of great importance to us. The first consultation in the Bundestag is expected to take place on June 24th,” it said on Twitter.
‘A security vacuum’
Bosnia lies hundreds of kilometres from the fighting in Ukraine, but faces an increasingly assertive Bosnian Serb separatist movement that analysts say has at least tacit support from Moscow.
Only days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU decided to almost double the size of its EUFOR peacekeeping force to 1,100 troops from 600 by sending in reserves to stave off potential instability.
With Bosnia’s Serb leader Milorad Dodik increasingly vocal about his secessionist aims, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the move a “precautionary measure”.
NATO and senior EU officials have warned instability from the war in Ukraine could spread to the Western Balkans.
“Thus, Germany responds to the tense situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” the German foreign office said on Twitter on Wednesday.
“Also with a view to the elections in October, we together with our European and NATO partners will not allow a security vacuum in our immediate neighbourhood.”
But Toby Vogel, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, noted Bosnia has already had a security vacuum “since at least 2011, when the EU let EUFOR drop below operational minimum strength”.
EUFOR’s current mandate runs out in November, and it is up to the United Nations Security Council to decide on an extension for another year. But concerns are growing that Moscow might use its veto to thwart an agreement.
Active since 2004, the EU’s EUFOR-Althea operation is the successor of NATO’s peacekeeping missions in the country.
The European troops are meant to stabilise the country after the 1992-95 war that claimed about 100,000 lives.
In December 1995, Bosnia was split into two entities: a Bosniak-Croat “Federation” and a Serb-run entity known as Republika Srpska as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Dodik has made no secret about his admiration and close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his push for secession of the Republika Srpska entity is widely believed to have the backing of the Kremlin.