Russian influence grows in Bosnia

February 22, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After remaining mostly on the sidelines since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia is again a force to be contended with in Eastern Europe.

Moscow's high-profile efforts to avert North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes against Bosnian Serbs foreshadow a larger role than it has played so far in seeking a negotiated end to the 2-year-old war. Its emissary, Vitaly Churkin, is expected to be a key behind-the-scenes operator today in a multination conference in Bonn, Germany, on the Yugoslav conflict.

With the United States committed to help implement a peace agreement with ground troops, thus reassuring Bosnian Muslims, Russia may push for some compensating security guarantees for its old allies, the Serbs.

Recognizing Moscow's larger role, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher has invited his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, Washington to discuss Bosnia.

Over the long term, Russia has signaled that it can act swiftly and adroitly to prevent any forceful NATO moves east of the area that the Western alliance traditionally protected.

U.S. officials say it's too early to judge how forceful Russia will be in trying to prevent NATO's involvement in potential Eastern European trouble spots in the future. But one senior official acknowledged that Russia's posture may collide with NATO's new, broader view of European security, one that sees what happens in Central and Eastern Europe as directly affecting the well-being of Western Europe.

There is "inevitably going to be some tension" between NATO and Russia over security threats in Central and Eastern Europe, this official said.

"They hated the idea that NATO would suddenly pull something off without their involvement," says the official, referring to the threat of air strikes to get Serbian guns away from Sarajevo.

"The bottom is real simple. They want to be players. They don't want to be left out," the official said.

The Clinton administration has been portraying the Russian role in the last several days in the best possible light, citing it as an example of how two Cold War adversaries were able to prevent a blow-up and achieve a common objective by cooperating.

Tense moments

But officials acknowledge tense moments, including what two officials described as an "aggressive" letter to President Clinton from Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Wednesday and a Russian envoy's warning that air strikes would lead to "all-out war."

Faced with the first serious NATO threat against Bosnian Serbs, Russia swung into action late last week.

It sent its own troops under United Nations command to Sarajevo to give a psychological boost to the Serbs, who greeted them as heroes. Its action helped get Serbian leaders to comply with a NATO ultimatum and pull back heavy weapons threatening the Bosnian capital.

This marked a potential watershed in Russia's dealing with the NATO alliance since the collapse of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance. Longtime religious and cultural ties with the Serbs are a hot domestic political button in Russia. But Russia has generally avoided getting embroiled in Central Europe's problems.

Cautious approach

Washington has been cautious about Russian anxieties. Fear of the impact that NATO military action would have on Mr. Yeltsin's domestic position influenced Mr. Clinton's decision in February 1993 to back away from his call for air strikes against Serbian positions.

In May, Mr. Clinton backed away from his push to lift the arms embargo imposed on Bosnian Muslims and launch compensatory air strikes against Bosnian Serbs in part because of an implicit threat of a Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council.

And it was largely out of concern for Russian sensitivities over drawing a new line in Europe that Mr. Clinton, overruling the wishes of some advisers, decided against offering early NATO membership to Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and opted instead for a vaguer Partnership for Peace plan open to all, including Russia and Ukraine.

But the Feb. 5 shelling of the Sarajevo market, killing 68 in the Bosnian capital, propelled the West into a tougher stance.

This time, the United States and its allies appear to have made a conscious decision not to grant the Russians any kind of veto. But they did try to smooth the way with Moscow.

On Feb. 7, a senior diplomat, James Collins, was dispatched to Moscow to explain generally the allies' plans and to enlist Russian help in getting the Serbs to ease the siege of Sarajevo.

At that time, Russian Foreign Ministry officials told Mr. Collins they were thinking of deploying some of the troops they already had under U.N. command in Croatia to the Bosnian capital. The United States neither encouraged nor discouraged the move.

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