Russian Help in Bosnia

April 28, 1994

Russia's apparent willingness to work more closely with the Western allies in seeking a settlement to the Bosnian war is by far the most hopeful development to come out of the bloody siege of Gorazde. It is now a full member of a newly formed "contact group" consisting of the U.S., Britain, France and Germany that will be in and near Sarajevo this week in a major thrust to restart negotiations among the Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

This could be a landmark step toward a peace imposed by the major outside powers. It should be clear by now that a settlement cannot be achieved without Russia's active participation. It is the one country, the only country, with real influence on the Serb aggressors. And, to date, its counsel against wide-scale NATO bombing attacks on Serb positions may have saved the Western alliance from actions it would long regret.

Putting faith in Russia, however, comes at some risk. While its Foreign Office is cooperating with the West and publicly criticizing the Serbs, its Defense Ministry is taking an opposite tack in response to nationalist sentiments at home. There is no foretelling the outcome of the Moscow power struggle, but it appears that Russian diplomats have the go-ahead to join the U.S. in promoting what amounts to the ethnic partitioning of Bosnia.

If this process is to succeed, it will require wrenching concessions from all sides. The Serbs have conquered 74 percent of Bosnia, up from 46 percent when fighting began two years ago. Under the partition plan that has qualified big-power assent, this must be reduced to 49 percent, with Croats and Muslims to share the remaining 51 percent. Just as Russia will have to put pressure on the Serbs now heady with triumph, so the United States will have to bring all of NATO's weight to bear on Muslims still seeking a multi-ethnic state. Lots of statecraft will be needed.

While NATO is peeved at the refusal of Yasushi Akashi, the U.N. representative in Bosnia, to sanction air strikes last weekend against Serb besiegers of Gorazde, he actually did the alliance a favor. Bombing raids of the magnitude contemplated would have invited Serb reprisals against U.N. peacekeepers -- a step that could have scuttled the whole mission. Mr. Akashi, a diplomat with the Cambodian peace agreement under his belt, quite rightly held that "it's very tough to reconcile the U.N.'s traditional role as a peacekeeper with the use of force." Too bad he was not in command in Somalia when the U.N. switched from humanitarian aid to battling a warlord capable of inflicting casualties that sent American forces home.

Now that Mr. Akashi has prevailed in Bosnia, without air attacks, the paramount American task is to keep a united front with Russia and work hard for a peace accord at the negotiating table. The hostilities of centuries cannot be settled on the battlefield.

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