Russia's Pivotal Military: Abroad

March 02, 1994

Three times in 10 days, the Russians have stepped in to stop the Bosnian Serbs from engaging NATO in direct hostilities. First came Moscow's decision to send 400 troops to Sarajevo on September 21, thereby giving the Serbs a face-saving way of bowing to a NATO bombing ultimatum. On Monday, prompt Russian support for NATO's shootdown of four Serbian planes constituted a warning to their allies not to retaliate. Then yesterday, after meetings in the Kremlin, Russia announced it would dispatch troops to Tuzla to give the Serbs assurance that no weapons would flow to besieged Muslims if a humanitarian airlift resumes.

What is the world to make of Russia's sudden engagement in a struggle from which it had largely been excluded by others and aloof by choice?

Russia is making the point that international problems in which it has a direct stake cannot be solved without it. This was a constant Cold War theme, but until the collapse of its empire and the military machine that sustained it abroad, Moscow's stance was marked by aggressiveness and negativism. Today, operating from weakness amid chaotic scenes of democratic experimentation, the Russians are redefining their world role by emphasizing the positives they can bring to the table.

Bosnian Muslims are deeply suspicious of Moscow. They fear Russia is setting up a new East-West line of confrontation. They see the presence of Russian troops as an attempt to insure Serbian supremacy over Muslims and Croats. Now they oppose the dispatch of Russian troops to Tuzla.

The United States, however, has to take a wider view. This nation has little to fear from Russia militarily at this juncture. Its strategic nuclear force is as unusable as it (and ours) has always been. Its conventional forces, once the means of clamping Communist dictatorship as far west as the Elbe River, is a shambles of rusting equipment, depleted formations and demoralized troops. To be sure, it could impose its will on a little place like Bosnia if it were unopposed. But confronted with NATO resolve, flabby as it may be, Moscow has no stomach for confrontation. All it wants, really, is respect and some recognition of its historic sphere of influence.

Until the Russian intervention in Sarajevo, the West almost studiously affronted Moscow. But since Russia spared NATO the burden of bombing Bosnian Serb artillery, there has been cautious appreciation for it has done. Says President Clinton: "We're encouraged by . . . the willingness of the Russians to work with us and others in trying to bring the Serbs into a final peace agreement."

If this sentiment holds and is reinforced by achievements on the ground, the Bosnian crisis could become a blueprint for an effective American-Russian relationship in dealing with turbulent regional and ethnic rivalries. As the sole remaining superpower, the United States should have the confidence and good sense to encourage a nation as huge and well endowed as Russia to play a proper and positive role in world affairs.

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