Russia hedges its Balkan military options: Moscow sends out mixed signals

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RUSSIA yesterday told the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, it is ready to send troops to help implement the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia but hedged over the use of force if the Bosnian Serbs reject a negotiated settlement to the civil war in the Balkans.

After a day of talks with President Boris Yeltsin and the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, Mr Christopher seems to have left the Russian capital with much the same non- committal message he received in London and Paris, the two previous stops on his European tour.

Russia, along with many West European countries, still sees the best hope for ending the bloodshed - and avoiding a dramatic escalation - as resting with the United Nations' peace plan that would divide Bosnia into 10 ethnically based provinces.

A joint statement issued at the end of Mr Christopher's visit said Moscow and Washington were ready to commit 'appropriate military forces of their own to assist in peace-keeping endeavours'. What will happen in the event of a Bosnian-Serb rebuff is less clear.

The statement said nothing had been ruled out but that nothing had been decided: 'If it is not accepted and implemented, Russia and the United States will immediately resume discussion of new, tougher measures. No measures are pre-judged or excluded.'

Mr Christopher said the US and Russia were 'on the same wavelength' over the Balkans. The US Senator, Sam Nunn, in Moscow for talks on nuclear disarmament and Bosnia, interpreted the vague joint statement as a breakthrough. 'It does not mean that they have agreed on what precisely should be done but it does mean that all the options are at last on the table,' he said. 'That is the kind of strong signal that is needed.'

Russian officials, however, focused on the importance of the UN-sponsored peace plan and ways to enforce it. According to Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, the two sides did not even discuss what action might be taken if the plan devised by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance collapsed. He was probably exaggerating for domestic political reasons but his comments seem to highlight Moscow's determination to press the UN plan to the last.

Mr Kozyrev said Russian troops would guard a land corridor between Bosnian Serb territory and Serbia: 'I am glad to be able to reiterate the commitment of Russia to provide necessary troops and monitors to be sure the corridor is safeguarded.'

Such a role would mark a sharp increase in Russia's involvement but not a fundamental policy shift. Russia is one of 10 countries taking part in UN peace-keeping and humanitarian missions in former Yugoslavia. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, 907 Russian military personnel have been stationed there for the past 14 months, though not inside Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In London, Douglas Hurd said Russian troops would operate under Nato command in any UN force to monitor the Vance-Owen agreement. The Foreign Secretary told a meeting of the Commons all-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee that everyone concerned was 'at a fork in the road as regards Bosnia'.

The choice was between ensuring implementation of the Athens accord on Vance-Owen, or a return to the military options discussed with Mr Christopher last weekend.