U.S. risks ties with Russia Airstrikes in Bosnia push an angry Moscow closer to China

September 24, 1995|By Dimitri K. Simes

There is a danger that even if the Clinton administration, in a de facto alliance with Croatia and the Muslim government in Sarajevo, achieves whatever passes for success in Bosnia it may well be a Pyrrhic victory for the United States.

As important as it is to maintaining U.S. credibility and NATO's cohesion to find an honorable way out of the Bosnian quagmire, a tactical gain in the former Yugoslavia will not outweigh a strategic loss in American relations with Russia.

Even those Russians who have distaste for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and who view Bosnian Serb leaders as barbarian thugs still believe that the Bosnian conflict is essentially a civil war.

As a result, it is impossible to find anyone of political relevance in Russia who approves of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's singling out of the Bosnian Serbs for punishment.

Even the most pro-Western politicians in Moscow do not appreciate having Russia's geopolitical decline rubbed in their faces. For years, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev have argued that acting as America's junior partner would enhance Moscow's leverage in the global arena.

Now, however, the dominant view is that the first time there was a serious difference between Russian and American perspectives, the Russian position has been contemptuously disregarded. That it happened in a region perceived to be outside of NATO's domain and close to Russia's borders is particularly offensive to the Russian political elite.

Are those who favor the cavalier disregard of Russian sensitivities in Bosnia taking into account how easy it would be for Moscow once again to use its veto power to neutralize the U.N. Security Council as an instrument of American foreign policy?

Are they unconcerned that the conflict over Bosnia will enhance Russia's propensity to disregard U.S. opposition to weapons and technology deals with nations like Iran, Iraq and North Korea? Do they forget that there are a variety of important arms control agreements -- including the Conventional Forces in Europe, START II and ABM treaties -- that are still the subject of contentious debate in both countries?

But these individual tactical issues, as important as they are, almost pale in comparison with what is fundamental -- America's international security environment, of which Russia is a major part. Nothing could be more damaging to U.S. interests, and to world peace in general, than an axis between the two great Eurasian powers, Russia and China.

But the Clinton administration's confused conduct has contributed to a situation when, for the first time since President Nixon's trip to Beijing in 1972, Russia and China are beginning to have a better relationship with one another than with the United States. Last week in the Security Council, China ominously supported Russia's failed attempt to stop NATO's bombardment of the Bosnian Serbs.

A related major strategic issue is the potential for a partial rebuilding of the Soviet empire. Quite a few of the new independent states are already beginning to be reconciled to the notion that Russia will play an important role in their futures.

But the nature of that role -- to what extent it relies on force and coercion or attempts to block the free and independent development of those nations, especially the countries controlling the enormous energy resources of the Caspian Sea basin -- is yet to be seen.

Russia's alienation from the West could easily contribute to its empire-building tendencies. It may not take too much time or effort to see Russian tanks on the Polish border again; there wouldn't even be a need to violate anyone's sovereignty since -- in response to NATO actions in Bosnia -- Belarus' president, Aleksandr Lukashenka, already has invited Russian troops onto his territory.

Finally, NATO airstrikes in Bosnia fueled Russian opposition to NATO expansion. Although the administration argued quite correctly for months that it was possible to expand NATO without provoking an irreconcilable conflict with Russia, the two weeks of bombing and the subsequent Muslim-Croatian offensive benefiting from it will make the incorporation of Central Europe into NATO far more difficult without a drastic break with Moscow.

The cavalier attitude of all sides in Bosnia to negotiated agreements once battlefield fortunes change in their favor signifies the danger in bringing U.S. and Russian troops to police the peace agreement. What started as a tragic but still a local conflict can acquire troubling international dimensions.

The Clinton administration should understand what is at stake and look for a solution that takes the Russian angle into account. America should be ready to stand up to Moscow when important U.S. national interests -- as in the case of NATO enlargement -- are involved, but thoughtlessly provoking another major power is not a sign of statesmanship.

Dimitry K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, is a special correspondent for Newsday.

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