Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 4

Can NATO and Russia Police Bosnia?

By Aleksandr Konovalov

Summing up the results of 1995, Nezavisimaya gazeta named (among five major accomplishments in the area of foreign policy) the cessation of military actions in Bosnia and Russia’s decision to send her military contingent to take part, together with NATO and other countries of the world, in efforts to implement the Dayton agreements. However, in speaking of possible long-term consequences of the agreements and the efforts already made one must be well aware of the fact that colossal political work is still required to have the process develop along a positive path. What we appraise as a major foreign policy achievement today may turn into a shattering failure tomorrow, which would undermine the entire idea of partnership between Russia and the U.S.

In order to understand what participation in the operation to implement the Dayton agreement means to Russia and what obstacles might emerge, one has to recall how ordinary Russian people (and the majority of the political elite) appraised the activities of the U.S. and NATO in Bosnia during 1995.

To begin with, nobody in Russia believed (unlike in the West) that the shelling of the Sarajevo market which served as the formal pretext for NATO to make massive air strikes on the Serb positions in Bosnia, was the result of a precise shot fired by a Serb gunner. The majority in Russia came to believe that NATO only needed a formal pretext to begin air strikes and such a pretext was found.

Secondly, the UN Security Council’s resolutions on Bosnia (which NATO referred to in explaining air raids against the Serbs) have been interpreted very differently in Russia and in the West. This fact had also strongly influenced the appraisals by Russian politicy makers of NATO’s activities in Bosnia. In Russia the UN Security Council’s resolutions on Bosnia (which Russia endorsed) were understood as follows: the UN has the right to address NATO with a request for air support in case it becomes necessary to evacuate the UN peacekeeping contingent from Bosnia or in case it is necessary to de-blockade the so-called "safe zones" set up by the UN in Bosnia. In the eyes of the Russians, NATO’s air strikes were inconsistent with this scheme and were perceived by Russia as an operation designed to destroy the Serbian military infrastructure. Especially since Tomahawk cruise missiles were used in addition to bombing from the air.

All of these developments led Russia’s politicians and public opinion to believe that NATO had acted in Bosnia not as an objective and impartial peacekeeper but as a force pursuing its own clearly defined political goals. Moreover, these NATO activities were understood as being directed not only against the Serbs but probably against Russia as well. Russia has reacted very painfully to being pushed out of the decision-making in the area of international security and to the prospect of NATO, substituting itself for the UN.

These sentiments grew even stronger due to the West applying a "double-standard" in the Balkan conflict. Those Russian analysts who were impartial and objective knew that there were people among the Serbs who were guilty of war crimes, ethnic purges and other acts which had resulted in mass migration and human rights violations. At the same time it is equally true that other sides involved in the conflict also were guilty of similarly wicked acts. Suffice to recall the ethnic purge in the Serb Krajina which was carried out by the Croatian Army. Russian politicians and the Russian public could not help asking questions. Why for committing one and the same crimes representatives of one side are punished by air raids while others are only mildly reprimanded?

The signing of the Dayton agreements and Russia’s decision to take part in efforts to implement them is precious for it helps to eliminate the vicious trends which had formed in the Russian-American relations due to both states being unwilling (or unable) adequately to understand each other’s motives and goals in the Balkans in general and in Bosnia in particular. The signing of the Dayton agreements has already brought about certain positive results. Without doubt, the main result is putting an end to the military conflict. Russia’s ambassador to Belgium Vitaly Churkin has stated that this conflict in addition to "damaging Europe’s security undermined the foundation of the entire European civilization of which Russia is a part." Secondly, Russia has become involved in efforts to implement the military and other aspects of the agreement. This will help Russia free itself of the unpleasant feeling of having been pushed out of the decision-making regarding problems where her interests are directly involved.

No less significant is the fact that for the first time since 1945 Russian soldiers will act together with American soldiers in a common mission. Besides, it is noteworthy that the military block of agreements (in accordance with which the IFOR — International Force to Implement the Dayton Agreements — was established) is to be supplemented by an extensive set of civil measures (political and humanitarian) the implementation of which is to be monitored by the UN Security Council; the latter will also help relieve Russia’s anxiety about NATO seeking to substitute itself for the UN.

Possibly, this experience of joint action by the world community in Bosnia will give birth to a model for a future European security system. Such a system should be effective to meet the challenges of the twenty first century and help avert the new threats that have emerged or might emerge.

Therefore, we obviously must conclude that political stakes in Bosnia are very high: the idea of partnership and cooperation is at stake. Therefore, probable mistakes or unexpected obstacles might cost a lot. To begin with, the status of IFOR and their mission and their sphere of competence in Bosnia have not been clearly formulated. As for the separation of the conflicting sides and the creation of four kilometer-wide safety corridors, everything is more or less clear. At the same time, far from everything is clear about the tasks of IFOR personnel within their sectors of responsibility. In a speech he made in the Federation Council (during the debate over the issue of sending a Russian military contingent to Bosnia) Defense and Security Committee Chairman Petr Shirshov emphasized that Russian soldiers in Bosnia will carry our their mission "without the use of force except for self-defense or cases of emergency where the use of force is necessary to carry out tasks stemming from the mandate of the international force."

U.S. president Bill Clinton has assured that the U.S. troops will do everything necessary to carry out their mission. "There is no need," he added, "to call Brussels on any occasion." It is very unlikely that the military contingents stationed in Bosnia will be assaulted. By the way, in such a case the use of arms by IFOR soldiers will be quite understandable and justifiable. At the same time, the conflicting sides will inevitably (although on a smaller scale) continue fighting against one another within the segments into which the territory of Bosnia has been divided. Who will make operational decisions concerning whether IFOR should intervene or not and in what particular form? One should not forget that however friendly the Russian and American servicemen might be to each other they have different views regarding the "right and wrong" sides in this conflict.

For example, speaking on the issue of U.S. foreign policy in March 1995 U.S. Senate majority leader Bob Dole named "Serb aggression and genocide enforced by the Serbs" as among the dangers to American interests. While calling upon his colleagues to endorse the decision to send a Russian military contingent to the Balkans (now former) Federation Council Chairman Vladimir Shumeiko specifically stated: "Our people will never agree that the Croats (who supported the Nazis during World War II) are ‘good guys’ today, while the Serbs (who were our allies in the anti-Hitler coalition) are ‘bad guys’ today."

The above quotations from speeches made by Dole and Shumeiko clearly show that Russian and American parliamentarians strongly differ in their motives, attitudes and desired results. Therefore, we can presume that equally different are attitudes of officers of the Russian and American military contingents who are supposed to act together in Bosnia. Significantly, these officers will have to make quick decisions right on the spot, i.e., to figure out who is right and who is wrong in case a conflict breaks out. What if their stances happen to not coincide? We should not be very afraid of this. But we should begin thinking about how such misunderstandings can be avoided and what to do if they still occur.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky