Bosnia Crisis: Russia rolls up for showdown: Impending air strikes over Gorazde have been forced on Clinton and his fellow leaders despite grave political risks

RUSSIA yesterday came out in favour of air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs if they continue to attack Gorazde.

But with the onslaught continuing against the besieged Bosnian town, it seemed that attempts to broker a ceasefire had failed: the resolve of the West and the solidity of its links with Moscow are to be tested to breaking-point.

Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, attacked the Bosnian Serbs, whom his country has hitherto supported, in outspoken terms. They had 'issued a criminal challenge to the elementary norms of humane behaviour, to the demands of the United Nations and also of Russia,' he said. Unless they stopped their offensive against Gorazde, in line with the Nato ultimatum agreed late on Friday night, air strikes would be justified.

But on the ground in Gorazde, reports indicated that the Bosnian Serb onslaught continued after the midday deadline set for a ceasefire. UN military observers reported heavy infantry attacks and Gorazde's mayor, in a radio link with Bonn, said hundreds of shells had been landing in the small town. The Bosnian Serbs blamed the Muslims for starting the firefight.

Two hundred Nato aircraft were on standby, and there were reports that aircraft were already flying over the town, apparently in preparation for an attack. Just days after Western officials had indicated that air power was not going to save the day at Gorazde, the chances that this would happen were rising, with all the attendant risks.

Friday's decision in Brussels to use air power to defend all the safe areas in Bosnia, starting with Gorazde, is a recognition that only by doubling the stakes can Western institutions hope to stop the killing and regain their credibility. But there is a series of grave risks involved in this desperate bid: diplomatic, humanitarian, and political dangers that analysts have been warning about since the start of the conflict.

Even though Mr Kozyrev has put Russia behind the West, only days ago a very different and more aggressive line was being peddled in Moscow. Nato diplomats and officials have spoken for months of apparently chaotic decision-making procedures in Russia, of splits between ministries and of contradictory signals. In particular, the defence and foreign ministries have been divided over their approach.

If air strikes happen, they are likely to be on a much wider scale than the close air-support missions of two weeks ago, and are likely to engage not just heavy weapons but also other 'military targets', as specified in the Nato ultimatum. That brings with it the risk of 'collateral damage' - the ugly term for civilian deaths, on either side. The spectre of 'friendly fire' also looms large, after disasters in the Gulf war and northern Iraq two weeks ago. Britain and other troop-providing states have insisted that there is close liaison with Lt- Gen Sir Michael Rose and Unprofor in Bosnia. The new strategy is more coherent than the previous line, since it embraces all safe areas, protects civilian lives and has a more streamlined command system.

'A piecemeal approach doesn't do the job, half-heartedness doesn't pay off,' said the Nato secretary-general, Manfred Worner, on Friday. 'You have to use more decisive means and we will not hesitate to use them.'

But militarily, the use of air power alone has limitations. It cannot seize ground, and there is still a question-mark over the extra UN forces required to implement the UN and Nato decisions. The US is still insisting it will not send ground troops, one of the few immutable positions in the conflict. 'There has categorically been no discussion in which I have been involved, or which I have encouraged or approved, involving the introduction of American ground forces into Bosnia,' Bill Clinton said on Friday night.

Politically, each head of government involved knows that the operation has a serious downside if it collapses, if civilian lives are lost, or if there is a military disaster.

President Clinton has sought to put foreign policy issues on the back-burner, but so far his administration has been dogged by unsatisfactory or botched involvements: another would cost him dear. John Major would be seriously damaged if the decision to launch air strikes alienated backbench opinion. And Boris Yeltsin has been at pains to prevent his flank from being turned by the nationalists in parliament.

Why has the West decided now that these risks are worth taking? The gamble reflects positive and negative factors. On the assets side, there is a chance that, with Russia so angry at Bosnian Serb defiance, with Serbia itself fearing the consequences of further conflict, and with the war moving into its endgame, military involvement now could tip the balance.

On the debit side is the massive blow struck to Nato and the UN by the attacks on Gorazde, at home and abroad, especially in the Muslim world. US allies are intent on seeing more decisive action. 'The confidence in Nato and its esteem is above everything else,' said Hikmet Cetin, Turkey's Foreign Minister, yesterday.

And the West's enemies see an open goal, as demonstrated by Iranian student attacks yesterday on UN offices in Tehran. The US initiative to threaten much wider use of force is an attempt to redress that. To back down now would have been highly damaging.

Britain, perhaps the most sceptical of the Western powers about the use of force, has gone along with the plans because a split in Western institutions, especially a transatlantic rift, could do more damage than anything the Soviet Union ever achieved in 40 years of trying to divide the Alliance.

On Monday, Douglas Hurd was adamant that further escalation would do no good, saying of military action: 'We've seen in the last few days the limitations to that.' Within five days, the line had changed.

(Photograph omitted)

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