BRUSSELS — BY enlisting the aid of Russia and Eastern European countries in its Bosnia mission, NATO is hoping to ''square a circle.''
The challenge is how to fit Eastern Europe into NATO's umbrella without provoking Russia, which remains adamantly opposed to enlarging the Atlantic alliance. It's one of the biggest security issues facing Europe and the United States.
The ''peace implementation force'' (IFOR) heading to Bosnia to enforce the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord has ''great implications for Bosnia but even greater consequences for the strategic relationship between NATO and Russia,'' British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said here this week.
American Secretary of State Warren Christopher noted that soldiers of ''virtually every European power will serve together'' in IFOR. It will include military participation by all 15 NATO members who have armed forces (Iceland does not); 13 countries from Austria to Ukraine that belong to the Partnership for Peace, a military cooperation program with NATO; and Pakistan.
The risks of so broad a multinational operation are evident. But as an actual military operation, and not just an exercise or a planning session, IFOR should show how well both Russia and would-be NATO members work with the Alliance.
Russia is too weak to invade its former Warsaw Pact ''allies,'' but those countries want above all to avoid being caught in the same kind of mid-European power vacuum that sucked away their independence after World War I. They want to belong to NATO.
Russia remains a major military power and a potentially unstable one. And so it is broadly accepted that NATO ''enlargement,'' as it is known, must be accompanied by some new structure for the NATO-Russian dialogue.
Speaking of his country's relationship with the West, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said here this week: ''Personally, I don't think the confrontational way will help solve problems.... The other mode is to address [them] in a cooperative partnership-type way, even disagree in a mutually respectful, cooperative-type way.''
Yet this week's controversy over how the Dayton accord addresses the civil rights of Serbs in Sarajevo shows how difficult it can be for NATO to take decisive action. Russia can help IFOR because it has credibility with the Serbs. But if ''peace enforcement'' breaks down into great-power patrons bickering among themselves over the interests of their clients, the same forces that plunged Europe into World War I will be at work.
Just how Russian forces will participate in the Bosnia mission is another potential sticking point. Russian troops will serve in Bosnia through a mechanism that has been praised for its ingenuity. They will not be under a NATO commander, but an American, Gen. George Joulwan - who just happens to be NATO supreme commander. But the US does not have a ''specific written memorandum of understanding with the Russians yet,'' says State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.
''We're working on it,'' he adds.