NATO chief commits to Bosnia's territorial integrity and condemns 'malign' Russian influence

NATO supports Bosnia's territorial integrity and is concerned by “malign foreign interference,” including by Russia, in the volatile Balkans region that went through a devastating war in the 1990s, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday.

Sarajevo was the first stop on Stoltenberg's tour of Western Balkan countries which also included Kosovo on Monday. He visits Serbia and North Macedonia later this week.

“The Allies strongly support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “We are concerned by the secessionist and divisive rhetoric as well as malign foreign interference, including Russia."

There are widespread fears that Russia is trying to destabilise Bosnia and the rest of the region and shift at least some world attention from its invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow is openly supporting the secessionist, pro-Russian Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik, who has repeatedly called for the breakup of the country and joining the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia with neighbouring Serbia.

“This threatens to undermine stability and hampers reform,” Stoltenberg said. “All political leaders must work to preserve unity, build national institutions and achieve reconciliation. This is crucial for the stability and the security of the country.”

NATO played a major role in ending the 1992-95 Bosnian war and implementing a US-sponsored peace plan that divided the country roughly into two highly autonomous regions, one controlled by the Bosnian Serbs and the other by Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslims, and Bosnian Croats.

“NATO has been committed to Bosnia-Herzegovina for years,” Stoltenberg said. “Your security matters for the Western Balkans region and it matters for Europe.”

The Bosnian Serb leadership has for years been blocking Sarajevo's application for NATO membership, which Russia also opposes.

Stoltenberg said that should end.

“Every country has the right to choose its own security arrangements without foreign interference,” he said.

Later Monday, Stoltenberg visited Kosovo, the former Serbian province that has been recognised as an independent state by the US and most of the West, but not by Serbia and its allies Russia and China.

Stoltenberg said NATO will consider deploying additional peacekeeping troops in Kosovo to ensure that the simmering tensions between the Kosovo Serb minority and ethnic Albanian majority do not spiral out of control and create "some violent conflict in Kosovo or in the wider region.”

The NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, in operation since the 1999 war between Serbian government troops and Kosovo Albanian separatists, currently has over 4,500 troops from 27 countries.