Letting Russia draw the line: The Sarajevo ultimatum may have set up a future East-West conflict, warns Jonathan Eyal

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THE expiry of Nato's Bosnian ultimatum last night has concluded a week of extraordinary political pirouettes that will transform the Balkans. Sarajevo in 1994 is not the Sarajevo of 1914, but we have returned to the same conditions that produced two regional wars this century: division of the Balkans into potential spheres of influence. And the consequences of Russia's conduct throughout last week will ultimately affect the entire network of East-West relations.

In practice, the ultimatum was the result of British fatigue with transatlantic disputes, French desire to get closer to Nato, German frustration about remaining a giant with feet of clay, and America's determination to allow its television couch potatoes to watch live relays of the Lillehammer games unhindered by any harrowing pictures from another former Olympic city.

On the positive side, Western governments claim that the ultimatum draws the US into the negotiations process: without Washington's involvement, the argument goes, the Bosnians would never be persuaded to accept the carve-up of their republic. True, but drawing the US into the peace process should have been accomplished quite separately from the threat of air strikes. Since their troops are not engaged on the ground, the Americans remain free to escalate air bombardments. Paradoxically, the unanimity built around the threat of air strikes will be shattered with the explosion of the first bomb: few of America's European partners are willing to contemplate a deeper military involvement.

More importantly, America's return to the Balkans has profound political implications which European leaders failed to notice, and for which they are already paying a price.

Ever since the Yugoslav civil war started, the West has dictated 'principles', leaving the Balkan states to cope with the realities. The European Union, an organisation which told the East Europeans they cannot be admitted for decades yet, still claimed to speak on behalf of an entire continent by being the first to impose sanctions on the former Yugoslavia. The sanctions have caused billions of dollars-worth of damage to Yugoslavia's neighbours, yet demands for compensation are studiously ignored. And Nato, the alliance which still regards former Communist states as 'out of area' to its main responsibilities, is now proposing to drop some bombs on the region.

Not one of the Western leaders who issued the ultimatum found it strange that, apart from Albania, all of Yugoslavia's neighbours are opposed to air strikes; the assumption was, as always, that the 'natives' would swallow whatever was the received wisdom in Brussels. Partnership for Peace agreements have just been signed with most Balkan states, and Nato has a North Atlantic Co-operation Council, ostensibly in order to discuss the East Europeans' security concerns. Not one Nato bureaucrat thought it appropriate to use either mechanism: 'partnership', for Nato, means the East should follow the West, not that the West should listen to the concerns of the East. Yet seen from the Balkans, the West's misguided actions bear all the hallmarks of a wider East- West confrontation.

Aware that Moscow opposed air strikes, Nato resorted to a series of subterfuges to appease the Russian leaders. The alliance claimed it was only acting on behalf of the United Nations. But when the Russians demanded a clarification of this mandate, Western countries refused a new Security Council vote. Nato then claimed that the ultimatum was aimed at all belligerents, not only the Serbs. This argument fooled no one, for the idea that Nato might bomb the Muslims was always preposterous. Throughout, the West's assumption was that President Yeltsin would swallow these silly justifications, especially if the Russians were invited to take a more 'active' role in the peace negotiations. The tactic failed miserably.

It is doubtful that Boris Yeltsin actually cares a great deal about Serbia. Defending the Serbs is a rallying cry for his nationalist opposition at home, and was clearly a factor in the Russian leader's anxiety not to appear to be following the West's dictates. Yet much more important is Moscow's determination to avoid the precedent of Nato acting without Russian involvement in any area of Europe in which the Soviet Union exercised influence.

In playing his cards brilliantly, Mr Yeltsin never forgot the lesson received by his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, when Moscow tried to retain some influence in the Middle East on the eve of the Gulf war: unlike Mr Gorbachev's diplomatic offensives, which were simply brushed aside by the Americans at that time, Mr Yeltsin introduced troops into Sarajevo, thereby virtually guaranteeing that he cannot be ignored.

Officially, the West smiles upon this development. Yet it is a smile through gritted teeth. In his weekend message to the American people, President Clinton studiously referred only to the Nato ultimatum, while Russia's foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, affirmed in increasingly strident terms that Moscow does not recognise any such ultimatum. The choice is stark: either Nato goes ahead with the bombing, thereby risking a serious dispute with Russia, or it abandons the idea of air strikes in Bosnia, probably for ever.

The ramifications of this development go much deeper. Russia's behaviour indicates that a 'strategic partnership' with the West is a myth: in many areas of potential conflict, the interests of Russia and those of the West do not coincide and, if the West is intent on keeping Moscow 'on board', it will need to make real sacrifices, not just blather meaningless platitudes. The question is whether it is ready to make these sacrifices (which may entail a permanent Russian say, not only in the Balkans but also elsewhere in Eastern Europe). One fact is clear: Russia remains unprepared to accept any expansion of Nato's role farther east under any guises, including the UN mantle.

And the Balkans can slide out of control. An air strike on Bosnia without Russian agreement can only result in a war by proxy between client states. If the West decides to take this risk, either way the Bosnian Muslims will turn out to be the greatest losers and relations with Moscow will be affected. What began as a great show of Western resolve could become Europe's worst post-Cold War nightmare.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)