How the Russians stole a march on the West to give 'peace' to Sarajevo: The deployment of Moscow's troops on the siege lines crowns an astute Balkan strategy planned with Serbia and Greece. Tony Barber reports

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A TRINITY of Orthodox powers - Russia, Serbia and Greece - significantly advanced their interests in the Balkans this week, while Western governments are trying hard to put the best face on policies that have gone askew. The Russians, Serbs and Greeks scored their successes by closely co-ordinating Balkan strategies and by pursuing clearly defined objectives.

By contrast, for the past three years the West has failed to put together a coherent vision for former Yugoslavia or for the Balkans. Divided over how to end the Bosnian war and uncertain how to calm other Balkan tensions, Western countries have let the initiative slip into the hands of more astute rivals.

The week began with technical debates among Western governments, Nato commanders and United Nations officials about the conditions under which air attacks might be launched against Bosnian Serb targets around Sarajevo.

The only point on which everyone could agree was that Nato would not alter its deadline of midnight tomorrow for the withdrawal or placement under UN control of Bosnian Serb heavy weaponry around Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, senior figures in the Russian, Serbian and Greek governments were pressing ahead with plans intended to thwart Western military action and expand their regional influence.

The three Orthodox Christian powers have been close since the Yugoslav wars broke out in June 1991, and each had strong reasons to prevent Western intervention. In particular, the Russians abhorred the prospect of Nato operations in an area beyond Nato's borders and so close to their own frontiers.

An early sign of co-ordinated policy-making appeared last Tuesday when the Greek Foreign Minister, Karolos Papoulias, arrived in Belgrade for talks with the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Greece is the president of the European Union, but opposes its allies' pressure on Serbia and had long made clear it would not support Nato air attacks against the Bosnian Serbs.

In return for supporting the Serbian position, the Greeks received implicit Serbian backing for a tough measure they announced the next day. That was the decision to slap, in effect, a trade embargo on the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia by closing to Macedonian commerce the port of Salonika and all Greek customs points.

That move, which caused consternation and anger in the EU, is intended to force the former Yugoslav republic to stop calling itself Macedonia and thereby, in Athens' view, laying claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.

Tensions underlying this obscure quarrel became clear yesterday when Bulgaria and Albania, no friends of Greece, were joined by Turkey and Italy in setting up a supply corridor to Macedonia, to help break the embargo. Transport officials from those countries said they had agreed on a road and rail link to Macedonia, which would be co-ordinated in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

On Wednesday, President Boris Yeltsin's special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, paid a surprise visit to Belgrade to confer with Mr Milosevic. He had been in the Serbian capital only last weekend but this time he put the finishing touches to a plan to stop Nato air attacks.

Its form was influenced by a UN request, made on Monday, for Russia to join other countries in sending extra troops to Sarajevo. At first neither Russia nor any Western power was enthusiastic about committing more forces but, after consideration, Moscow decided the request offered an ideal opportunity to stop Nato dictating the terms of peace in Sarajevo.

The plan, which Mr Churkin took to the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale on Thursday, involved the dispatch of 800 Russian soldiers to Sarajevo in return for Russian participation in the UN operation to rid the city of heavy artillery. From the Serbs' point of view, the chance to have sympathetic forces under a UN flag around Sarajevo was the best news to come their way all week.

British government ministers suggested that the Russian initiative came as no surprise and had arisen from John Major's talks with Mr Yeltsin in Moscow on Tuesday.

Indeed, the British have always thought Russian involvement in Bosnian diplomacy could be a useful way to eliminate the risk of Western intervention in the war and speed a settlement. However, if Mr Yeltsin revealed his plans to Mr Major, then the Prime Minister appears to have kept the information from allies such as Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand. Moreover, UN officers in Sarajevo and the Muslim-led Bosnian government were also left in the dark.

Western governments were dropping hints yesterday that they welcomed Russia's intervention. After all, it means no air strikes, a threat some Nato states had never wanted to carry out. But the hard truth is that after three years of Western floundering it is the Russians, Serbs and Greeks who are setting the pace in the Balkans.

(Photograph omitted)