Another walk-on part for Moscow: Jonathan Eyal argues that the West continues to misread Russia's relations with the Serbs

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WITH THIS week's meetings in London, international efforts to tackle the Yugoslav war have come full circle. Originally, the European Union asserted a leading role in the Balkans. After failing comprehensively, it passed the problem to the UN, which in turn handed it to Nato. The involvement of Nato brought in the Americans and that, predictably, drew in the Russians. Three years after the Yugoslav crisis started, the governments concerned decided on a measure they could have implemented from the start: they established a 'contact group' of officials to co-ordinate policies in Yugoslavia.

Ostensibly, a contact group makes sense. The positions of the Nato governments and the Kremlin appear to be drawing closer. Nato's failure to stop the Serbs destroying Gorazde was followed by the failure of the Russian envoy in the Balkans, deputy foreign minister Vitaly Churkin, to achieve the same end through persuasion.

The US administration has been pushing for stronger Nato action in Yugoslavia precisely because it assumes that this time the Russians are unlikely to object. Yet appearances can be deceptive: the contact group is a device intended to take a middle course between engaging Moscow in the Balkans and keeping the Russians away. And, despite the current efforts, the West is almost guaranteed to continue misreading the message from the Kremlin.

We have persuaded ourselves that the Russians have a historic friendship with the Serbs. But although history plays a part in the Balkans, it tends to provide only justification, not the reason, for the Serbs' current policies. True, many Russians feel some affinity with them. Historically, though, Russian-Serb relations were dominated more by confrontation than co-operation.

Nationalist politicians in Moscow today may have an interest in reviving a historic pan-Slav alliance. But this is not necessarily the same as friendship with the Serbs; Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bulgaria are also Slav nations. It is often forgotten, moreover, that Serbia's political elite was educated at a time when Moscow was viewed as Yugoslavia's mortal enemy. All Serb generals now fighting in Bosnia were trained for a possible Soviet invasion. In short, the 'traditional' Russian-Serb friendship is nothing more than a temporary marriage of convenience and is unlikely to last.

Isolated from the world, Serbs see Moscow as their only protector against military action from the West. But they are also determined to show that they will not allow the Kremlin to interfere with their war plans. Hence they ignored Russia's demands for a halt to the carnage around Gorazde.

Having the limits of their influence exposed has been frustrating for Russia's diplomats. But this does not mean that Boris Yeltsin is now ready to give the West a free hand in the Balkans. From the Russian perspective, the most important consideration is not the ultimate arrangements in Yugoslavia, but the lessons that the Balkan war may have for future European security structures and the precedents Western action may set.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian politicians kept the notion of a 'strategic partnership' with the West. It is easy to see what they had in mind: although weakened, Russia should continue to occupy a place at the top table and be involved in important decisions. The West understood this need, and paid lip service to the concept. But events in Yugoslavia exposed how insubstantial it was.

Russia's every demand for a new UN mandate in the Balkans has been rejected. Instead, the West has insisted on reinterpreting resolutions already adopted by the Security Council. Often, as far as Moscow was concerned, they did this without consulting the Kremlin. The decision to nominate Nato to implement UN policies in Bosnia was taken without consulting the Russians; so was the decision to issue an ultimatum on Sarajevo, the shooting down of four Serb planes over Bosnia and the launch of air strikes on Gorazde on 10 April. At each stage, the West promised the Russians would be involved, but this happened after, not before, a decision was taken.

The tactic was familiar to the Russians, for it was the same as the one used by the US before the Gulf war. Moscow was also excluded from the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations: the Russian foreign minister was invited only to the signing ceremony in Washington, just an actor in a vast Western-sponsored photo- opportunity.

So, when Nato issued its ultimatum on Sarajevo this February, Mr Yeltsin was determined not to be surprised again: instead of relying on Western promises, he deployed troops around the Bosnian capital, so ensuring that his country could no longer be ignored.

Russia's main interest in Yugoslavia is to uphold a single idea: that Nato should not be allowed to do as it pleases in what Moscow still considers a Russian sphere of influence. The West may be right to challenge this view. But to annoy the Russians and fail to achieve any purpose in Yugoslavia is the worst of both worlds.

Mr Yeltsin has recently revived his call for a summit on Yugoslavia. The American administration has no interest in a new conference that could force it to take on unwelcome commitments. So, instead of a summit, this contact group will now attempt to devise a joint East-West strategy that will allowi the Russians to claim they remain involved, while upholding Nato's leading role in the Balkans. The creation of the group, without prior consultation with either Spain or Canada, has already infuriated both of these serious contributors to the Yugloslav peace-keeping force. And the chances are that this entire exercise will do little to change the situation on the ground.

The contact group may restrict the Serbs' ability to play off one power against another. But realities do not change: the Americans would like the Bosnians to accept that their republic is irrevocably divided, but cannot say so publicly; the Russians would like to limit Nato's involvement in the region, but do not wish to pick a fight with the West over Yugoslavia.

The truth that the creation of the contact group seeks to hide is simple. The interests of the West and those of Russia do not coincide in the Balkans. For the Russians, the status quo, created by Serb aggression, is acceptable; for the West, it is not. The Balkans require a genuine commitment from governments that believe strife in the area actually matters for European security. The creation of the contact group sends exactly the opposite message: bereft of new ideas, all governments have agreed that their main purpose is to shelve further disputes between themselves - the very same lowest common denominator that has failed every time in Yugoslavia.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)