Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Tuesday, in a rare visit by a European dignitary that came just one day after he openly endorsed Moscow's aggression against Ukraine.
Bosnia is inching closer to a general election on 2 October, in which Dodik is running for the presidency of the ethnic Serb-dominated entity of the Republika Srpska -- one of the two main administrative units in the country, comprising about half of its territory.
"You will have elections in your country soon, and I wish you success," Putin said, according to a transcript of the conversation published by the Kremlin's official website.
"I hope that the results will strengthen the position of the patriotic forces in the country, allowing us to continue to develop productive and mutually beneficial cooperation," he added.
Dodik -- the Serb member of Bosnia's state-level three-way Presidency -- has frequently met with Putin, especially ahead of elections when he wants to show the highly pro-Russian Bosnian Serb electorate that he has the Russian leader's support.
Moscow mulling whether to vote in favour of the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia
Moscow has been repeatedly accused of exploiting the divisions between the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia by tacitly supporting Dodik's separatist policies.
The small Balkan country was ravaged by a brutal and bloody war in the 1990s that saw 100,000 casualties and two million people becoming either refugees or internally displaced.
The 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, designed by the international community to end the conflict, divided Bosnia into two entities, the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Bosniak- and Croat-majority Federation of the BiH, or FBiH.
The two entities have a certain level of independence in decision-making, with the umbrella state-level institutions holding the reins in key matters, such as taxes and defence.
In late 2021, Dodik caused what has been deemed the worst domestic crisis since the 1992-1995 war after he announced plans for the RS to pull out of some of the state institutions, with the promise to break up the country’s small professional army into ethnic sub-parts seen as the most dangerous of the proposed measures.
Dodik walked back on his announcement after Kremlin’s full-scale invasion, stating in June that his plans had been “put on hold” due to the war in Ukraine.
Since the February invasion of Ukraine, Bosnia remained one of the few European countries — including Belarus, Serbia and Moldova — that has not introduced sanctions against Russia, with Dodik repeatedly blocking the move.
The Bosnian Serb leader justified his insistence on remaining neutral by stating that Bosnia, fully reliant on Russian gas, cannot afford to distance itself from the Kremlin due to potentially “grave economic consequences,” but also close cultural ties with Moscow.
In the meantime, Moscow has rejected to continue funding the office of the international community's peace envoy, High Representative, pulling out of the institution's overseeing body, the Peace Implementation Council or PIC, in April.
Dodik and Putin were also supposed to talk about the mandate of the EU-led international 1,100 soldiers-strong peacekeeping mission, Althea, which is scheduled for its annual extension at the United Nations Security Council in November.
Moscow is said to be mulling whether to vote against it, but no further details have been revealed after the meeting between the two.
Dodik boasts about upcoming football friendly
Dodik last met Putin in June, months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, while attending the St Petersburg economic forum.
At the forum, Putin was said to have praised Dodik for remaining loyal to Moscow despite strong international pressure to join the sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin's official website reported.
Since February, Dodik and the Kremlin have also said to have been discussing economic issues, including the construction of a Russian-funded gas pipeline to the Republika Srpska's de facto administrative centre, Banjaluka.
Dodik also used the Tuesday meeting with Putin to boast about the fact that Bosnia is poised to become the only European country to play a football friendly against Russia since February, whose national football team has been suspended from international competitions by FIFA and UEFA due to the Kremlin's invasion of its western neighbour.
"Several days ago -- I would like to tell you, brag about it, in fact -- we had the opportunity to make sure that Bosnia and Herzegovina play a friendly match with your football team in St Petersburg on 19 November," Dodik said, according to the Kremlin.
"Our people have secured this decision for the Bosnia and Herzegovina national football team, and we hope that we will keep this date ... even though one part of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not want it. In any case, we accomplished this in the current circumstances," he explained.
Bosnian football stars and the Ukrainian Football Federation both condemned the decision. Yet Putin welcomed the move, saying that "sport should unite, not divide people".
"I want to emphasise once again that we know you as a friend of our country," Putin told Dodik.
'Russia was forced to retaliate', says Dodik
Dodik has been the subject of several US sanctions packages and was recently put on a UK sanctions list for his disruptive domestic actions.
Last week, the US State Department released a new intelligence assessment, claiming that Russia has covertly spent more than $300 million in recent years trying to influence politicians and other officials in more than two dozen countries.
Dodik and his SNSD were said to be among the parties sympathetic to Moscow and Putin in the Western Balkans, which allegedly received the funding meant to help them win elections and sway public opinion.
Upon his arrival in Moscow on Monday, Dodik gave an interview to Russia's state news agency TASS, where he repeated his separatist views and openly endorsed Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
"For many years the West did not react to the extermination of the Russian population in Ukraine, there were daily murders and bombings in Donbas," Dodik claimed in the interview, referring to the separatist Moscow-supported region in eastern Ukraine. "All this was clear, and Russia was forced to retaliate."
Dodik also rejected claims by Ukrainian authorities and international human rights organisations that Moscow and its forces are deliberately committing war crimes against civilians and bombarding civilian targets, dubbing the war "special operation" -- a term the Kremlin insists on using for its full-scale invasion.
"Russia is conducting a special operation whose purpose is indeed to destroy the enemy, but it carries out its mission so the there are as few casualties as possible," Dodik said.