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Bosnian Serb Swaps Identities, Joins The Fight To Make 'Everything Russia'

Bozic…or Velimirovic…as "Sasha the Musician" on Telegram.
Bozic…or Velimirovic…as "Sasha the Musician" on Telegram.

SARAJEVO -- Asked if he plays the violin, "Sasha the Musician" offers a response which, like much that emerges from multiple exchanges on encrypted social media, says both everything and nothing.

The violin images that are scattered throughout his posts from Russia and Ukraine, he says during a lengthy video chat from behind a balaclava, are an homage to the Russian mercenary group that acts as a brutal fighting arm of the Kremlin, named Wagner after the 19th-century German composer.

It’s just one of the ways this 43-year-old Bosnian Serb with avowed loyalties to “the Russian way” seemingly reinvented himself for the fight against Ukraine.

“I am closely tied to Russia. Everything in me is Russian,” he told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “I'm on the Russian side, yes. Personally, I’ll come home the moment the deal’s done and everything’s Russian. Everything.”

In multiple conversations across several platforms and two online profiles, he talked blithely of joining the Russian fight (“Why not?”) and embraced Russian expansionism from Ukraine to Bosnia and everything in between.

Since November, his posts on VKontakte have been a parade of camouflaged soldiers, packages of food and other supplies said to be bound for Russian troops in Ukraine, and videos of masked individuals using military-grade rifles and other weapons. All in support of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Bosnian intelligence sources told RFE/RL that, as of November, "Sasha the Musician" was one of seven Bosnian citizens on the battlefields of Ukraine.

His eagerness to enter the conflict based on a declared allegiance to Russia and its subjugation of Ukraine and other independent states is part of a trickle of militaristic young men who’ve left the Balkans to wage war -- usually illegally -- for President Vladimir Putin’s cause.

Identity Swap

Records and intelligence sources in Bosnia-Herzegovina confirm "Sasha the Musician" is a 43-year-old from Banja Luka who was born Ljubisa Bozic but officially changed his name a few years ago to Aleksandar Velimirovic, amid ongoing legal troubles.

And two security sources in Bosnia, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, told RFE/RL that Velimirovic went to Ukraine in the spring of 2022, within weeks of the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of its smaller post-Soviet neighbor.

Speaking to RFE/RL in online chats and correspondence over several months, Velimirovic declined to confirm that he had been in Ukraine anytime in the past eight years but hinted as much, saying of Ukraine and Russia that “it’s like when you go to a store and you already know what’s there.”

Velimirovic posted this photo on VKontakte. RFE/RL could not determine that he is the man in the photo.
Velimirovic posted this photo on VKontakte. RFE/RL could not determine that he is the man in the photo.

He said his job is to deliver aid, food, and other supplies to the Russian military. He also claimed he is not on the battlefield and that photos and videos that he publishes on social media are there by accident and that they mean nothing.

“I’ll return to Bosnia when there’s no border between us,” he added.

In one conversation, he asked why he was being contacted by a correspondent from the Federation entity -- which along with majority-Serb Republika Srpska composes Bosnia-Herzegovina -- “when I’m from Republika Srpska.”

He also accused RFE/RL’s correspondent of being “in SIPA,” a reference to the State Investigation and Protection Agency, Bosnia’s official state police agency.

Criminal Past

Velimirovic has appeared in photos showing him in battlefield fatigues with the Wagner insignia, but his military wear during his conversations with RFE/RL had no visible designation.

Velimirovic spent more than a decade in trouble with the law in Bosnia, including a kidnapping conviction in 2010 and a misdemeanor for insulting Muslims in front of a mosque in Banja Luka in 2016, so he was known to Bosnian police.

His third major scrape with the law came in 2020, when he was detained at Sarajevo’s international airport. He was then transferred by Bosnian state authorities to the justice system in Republika Srpska before being released when a Banja Luka court said it was unable to “determine which warrant” was being acted on.

Velimirovic’s name change from Bozic, the name attached to his earlier legal cases, appeared to play a role in the purported mix-up.

Agents of SIPA, which normally handles cases of suspected participation in foreign conflicts, questioned him as a suspect.

The Bosnian Prosecutor-General’s Office told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that an order to suspend the case was issued “because there was not enough evidence of the commission of a criminal offense.” Most of the evidence, it added, consisted of circumstantial details and “difficult-to-verify information on social networks.”

A credible source told RFE/RL that, after leaving for Russia, Velimirovic signed a contract with the Wagner Group and was seeking Russian citizenship. But RFE/RL could not independently confirm that Velimirovic was a Wagner contractor.

Wagner, the Kremlin-linked paramilitary fighting force that along with its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is under U.S. and other Western sanctions, has openly advertised “job” openings on Russia Today Balkans, a division of Russia’s foreign-language propaganda channel in the region, as recently as January.

“I’m not so stupid that I’d go home now, and there would be a lot of questions,” Velimirovic told RFE/RL.

A photo from Ljubisa Bozic’s Facebook profile in 2017 (left) and a photo of Aleskandar Velimirovic posted on "Sasha the Musician’s" VKontakte profile in 2023.
A photo from Ljubisa Bozic’s Facebook profile in 2017 (left) and a photo of Aleskandar Velimirovic posted on "Sasha the Musician’s" VKontakte profile in 2023.

Desperate For 'Russian' Fighters

Russian war planners are thought to have expected a quick battle to subdue Ukraine and install Kremlin-friendly leaders following a lower-grade conflict since the occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014, but Ukrainian defenders with Western support have stymied the 15-month invasion and mounted counterattacks.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are believed to have been killed, with many more wounded, forcing Putin into a “partial mobilization” to carry on fighting with the support of Wagner mercenaries.

The United Nations has warned of an “alarming” practice by the Wagner group of recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine. In March, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) outlined a scheme under which pardons were exchanged for tours of duty. It also said Wagner recruits both Russian and foreign citizens who are serving time for criminal convictions.

It is difficult to say how many young men from the Balkans have gone to fight in Ukraine for either side.

Bosnian law forbids its citizens from joining foreign armies.

Bosnian prosecutors told RFE/RL that they were investigating seven citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina for allegedly joining Russia's fighting forces. They declined to officially confirm whether any of those investigations involved Velimirovic.

Bosnia’s highest-profile case for alleged fighting in Ukraine was the prosecution of Gavrilo Stevic, who was acquitted in March 2020 of all charges of fighting for anti-Kyiv separatists.

Stevic was accused of traveling via Belgrade to Moscow and Rostov-on-Don to Ukraine in 2014, where prosecutors believed he joined the Jovan Sevic paramilitary unit in an area of Ukraine’s Luhansk region that was occupied by Russia-backed separatists. Stevic, who has since maintained his pro-Russian activism, acknowledged traveling to Ukraine “as a Yugoslav and an idealist” but maintained that he never fought.

Hundreds of Serbian citizens were believed by Ukrainian intelligence to have fought in eastern Ukraine alongside Russia-backed separatists after 2014. More are reported to have joined the Russian side since the 2022 invasion began, with only occasional legal consequences and mild sentences in just a handful of cases.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting in Sarajevo by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Meliha Kesmer

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