West hopes to woo Russia for peace force

RUPERT CORNWELL

Williamsburg, Virginia

American and Nato officials want Russia to have a "substantial" role in a Bosnian peace-keeping operation, under an agreement to be endorsed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin at their mini-summit in New York later this month. They hope the accord will be a first step towards removing Moscow's suspicions about the alliance's plans to enlarge to the East.

The first outlines of the possible arrangements began to emerge at the meeting of Nato foreign ministers here, unexpectedly transformed by Thursday's ceasefire agreement into an urgent planning session for a Peace Implementation Force (PIF) deployment in the Balkans which could start as soon as late November.

The options, to be discussed by the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, when he meets his Russian opposite number, Pavel Grachev, in Geneva this weekend, include the creation of a "16-plus-one" body, consisting of the 16 Nato countries plus Russia, at Nato headquarters in Brussels. The two defence chiefs will also discuss the secondment of senior Russian officers to the alliance's military command in Mons, Belgium. Moscow should ideally be part of a "liaison structure at each level of the operation," a Nato official said.

The allies remain adamantthat the PIF must have a single military chain of command under Nato, whatever Russia's reluctance to have its troops commanded by the treaty organisation. But "a substantial offer'' was essential, and Russia might well be given vital non-military tasks, including engineering and resettlement programmes.

Especially worrying to Nato is the risk of a "Berlin-style partition" in Bosnia, where different ethnic parts of the country are policed by forces from a sympathetic patron - for example Russian troops in Bosnian Serb areas and US and other alliance contingents around Sarajevo and the other Muslim-controlled parts of the country. "Nato may have had its preferences in the past, but we must be even-handed now," the official said. The same, he implied, went for Russia.

Admiral Leighton Smith, the American commander of Nato forces in Southern Europe, would take overall charge of the operation, moving from Naples to Zagreb to oversee the operation. The theatre commander on the ground in Bosnia itself is likely to be General Mike Walker, the British commander of the alliance's reaction force.

With time of the essence, the deployment will use the existing stand- by plan for Nato to intervene to extricate the United Nations peace- keepers, had that been necessary. But that operation, drawn up to run for six to 12 weeks only, must now be restructured to last a year - the expected outside limit of the new Nato mission. If all goes well, Nato's reaction force command will be moved from Germany to Tomislavgrad, Croatia, in 72 hours, possible only with a pre-positioning of equipment and men that the Croatian government has yet to agree.

The defence ministers here accept that a peace agreement will have no chance unless it is absolutely clear-cut, with maps laying out a division of territory, and the position of every village precisely demarcated. In the case of Bosnia, deliberate ambiguities, usually the salvation of hard-contested diplomatic negotiations, could be fatal. For that reason too, military planners want "front-loading" the dispatch of a powerful force early on to deter last minute grabs for extra land by one side or other, rather than a smaller force that would have to be increased if trouble arose, increasing the risk - especially sensitive in the US in an election year - of America and Nato being sucked into a Vietnam-like morass.

Once this force is in place, the alliance hopes it can persuade the better-armed belligerents to reduce their own forces, "to get the Bosnian Serbs and the Croats down, rather than the Muslims up". Otherwise whatever the objections, of France in particular, Washington would be happy to see the less well-equipped Muslim army "professionalised and retrained," as Pentagon jargon has it.

Mr Perry's readiness - if all else fails - to beef up Bosnia's forces, is partly designed to sell the peace deal to a wary US Congress that only six weeks ago was poised to force an end to the UN arms embargo.

But Nato hopes its recent bombing campaign has convinced the Serbs that it means business. Perhaps, as the British Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, said: "The knowledge we're ready to arm Bosnia will be a strong incentive for the others to do a deal.''

Comments