How NATO lost Bosnia

February 24, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- WHEN I WAS in Croatia and Bosnia last spring, I discovered an amazing story: The Russian "peacekeeping" troops in the U.N. forces in East Slavonia had gone over to the Serbian side so totally that they were actually training the Serbs.

The Russian commander, a busy man named Litvinov, was happily riding around his U.N.-protected area in a white Mercedes given him by the properly grateful Serbs. Soon he resigned from the Russian army and reappeared as an adviser to the Serbs at the negotiating table.

So, it is not so surprising to see the Russians back this last week, being mauled with Serbian pan-Orthodox joy and greeted with tears by the Serb gunmen in the hills above Sarajevo. By inserting themselves at the last moment into the West's halfhearted promises to bomb the Serb gunmen, the Russians were just doing what they have been doing all along.

And don't doubt for a moment the real outcome of "Sarajevo 1994": The Russians won!

Paul Goble, the Soviet and Russian scholar now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me the morning after the Russians kindly allowed us not to do anything in Sarajevo: "This was the greatest triumph for Russian foreign policy in the last decade." "They have now achieved something so important for them and so negative for us that it will be difficult to put into perspective the consequences that will result.

"We lost -- big! Vladimir Zhirinovsky must be very impressed. And the Clinton administration is so pleased it was able to lift a rabbit from the railroad track that it doesn't see the train coming."

To recap briefly, after the NATO powers got the United Nations to give them the signal to bomb the Serb gunmen if they didn't move their heavy weapons, the Russians moved to fulfill their own new power designs. At the last moment before the deadline on Feb. 20, they announced they were sending 400 more "peacekeepers" into the hills, under the U.N. flag, to "protect" the Serbs while they "retreated."

Meanwhile, in diplomacy, the Russians had equally insulted the West. British Prime Minister John Major was in Moscow for consultations right up to the Russians' "surprise" move. Mr. Major, who for two years has provided the most coherently cowardly rationale for not carrying out military action in Bosnia, was not given the courtesy of being informed of Russian intentions.

And William Safire revealed in his New York Times column that Secretary of State Warren Christopher had talked at length with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, one of the administration's supposed Moscow "friends, only hours before the Russians and Serbs announced their company keeping deal." Mr. Kozyrev said nothing.

So it seems that the administration's great friends in Moscow turned with the tides of the Right in wanting to reassert Russian power and imperialism. Meanwhile, where was Russian President Boris Yeltsin?

More and more recently (as was the case when President Clinton tried to telephone him at the beginning of the NATO threat), Mr. Yeltsin is out of commission, because of a mixture of alcohol, drugs for his back pain and deep depression.

He has become a figurehead for what other, more aggressive powers within Russia want to accomplish.

The Clinton people realize everything is not as it should be with the Russians, but they are also very relieved that they did not have to carry through the air strikes they so feared undertaking.

But the cost has been incredibly high -- and it will go higher, if this is indeed the watershed moment in Eastern Europe that it seems.

First, we have seen, both in East Slavonia last spring and in Bosnia last week, that the Russians are playing a very different and dangerous game. They are not neutral peacekeepers and never will be. They know well how to use the haplessness of the West, which has tied itself into diplomatic, political and military knots with its insistence that every move go through the U.N.'s ponderous machinery.

So now we have the Russians effectively in control of the initiative in Bosnia, with the Serbs emboldened by their friendly support. They knew the West would not bomb -- not with all those peaceable Russian keepers on the ground.

Moreover, this move threatens all of Eastern Europe with the reality of successful Russian movement, and it will surely embolden the Right in Russia, who are delighted to see how cost-free their policies are!

The final word might belong to Muhamed Sacirbey, the Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations, who predicted this would lead to a "new fault line between East and West -- not communist vs. freedom but democratic societies vs. Orthodox fascism."

Or perhaps the last words should come from the West: those of President Clinton, who, American officials said, finally spoke with Boris Yeltsin by phone and thanked him for his help in reaching a "peaceful settlement."

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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