The first troops in the Nato-led peace implementation force are likely to arrive in Bosnia early next week, after Russia and Nato yesterday proclaimed a "historic" agreement enabling Russian troops to serve in the force, and giving Moscow a liaison role in command.
The agreement is not only crucial to peace in Bosnia, but also has far- reaching implications for East-West relations.
William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, said: "The significance goes far beyond Bosnia. It promises to form the basis of a new security dialogue between East and West, between Nato and Russia. This emerging new relationship between Nato and Russia will make Europe more stable and more secure."
The deal means that deployment to Bosnia can now begin, with a group of 1,300 "enabling" troops - including 600 British - expected to arrive as early as Monday or Tuesday.
Despite the wave of optimism, however, serious questions remain about how the implementation plan will work. So far there is little progress on setting up a civilian command to administer the massive reconstruction task. And Nato yesterday ruled out taking on the mission of arresting war criminals, saying it is still considering whether its forces should have powers of arrest in some circumstances. How to disarm and "rebalance" Croats, Muslims and Serbs is still under discussion.
Doubts also remain about whether the alliance will be able to fulfil its political commitment to pull out all forces after 12 months. Michael Portillo, the British Secretary of State for Defence, insisted yesterday: "There is a clear commitment that this operation will last 12 months and we will all deploy together and all withdraw together."
The agreement on Russian participation, struck between Mr Perry and Pavel Grachev, the Russian Defence Minister, ends weeks of fraught negotiation over how to give Moscow a political role in controlling the force. The solution arrived at means Moscow will be consulted by the 16-member alliance before decisions are taken by the North Atlantic Council, Nato's ruling body of ambassadors in Brussels. In what is called a "16 plus one" formula, the Russians may also be able to raise points at the council's discussions. In return, Russian troops will serve, in effect, under US command.
Although Moscow had demanded a larger role, and would have preferred a United Nations umbrella for the operation, Mr Grachev hailed the plan, praising Nato's new cooperation with Moscow. From now, he said, there were "no questions which cannot be solved."
A total of 15 Nato nations will contribute troops to the implementation force, and 12 non-Nato countries, including Russia, have agreed to join. Nato leaders said yesterday the force would supervise the separation of the warring forces, their withdrawal to barracks, the setting up of civil institutions and the conduct of elections.
The alliance leaders are clearly concerned about the delay in appointing a "high representative" to oversee the civilian tasks such as reconstruction, refugee return and election preparation. Carl Bildt, the EU's delegate to the former Yugoslavia, is the favourite, but dispute over how tasks should be assigned is holding up agreement. The alliance is also embarrassed over the continuing failure to appoint of Nato secretary-general following the resignation of Willy Claes. It now seems certain that the force will deploy with no secretary-general in place.
Nato discussed yesterday calls for the arming and training of Bosnian forces, as a means of ensuring a permanent balance of power once the peace forces pull out. The alliance appears to ruling out re-arming the Bosnians, and favours disarming the stronger armies, but new discussions on all arms control issues are now scheduled to take place in Bonn.