RUSSIAN leaders told visiting US Secretary of State Warren Christopher yesterday that they are ready to join common efforts with the major Western European powers to settle the crisis in former Yugoslavia, including the participation of Russian troops in a large peacekeeping force.
But Moscow also made it clear that it is no more eager than London or Paris to lend support to United States plans to use military force should the Serb forces in Bosnia refuse to accept the United Nations peace plan devised by mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen.
Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, speaking to reporters after talks with his US counterpart, emphasized that their aim was to "do everything to encourage the Bosnian Serbs to go the right way, that is to approve the Vance-Owen plan and to fulfill it together with the other parties."
The talks here arrived at a formula very similar to that reached in talks earlier this week with French and British governments - what Mr. Christopher described as a "two-track" approach. If the Bosnian Serbs agree to the peace plan, the Russians will commit "appropriate military forces" as part of a Western peacekeeping effort in which up to 70,000 ground troops would enforce a peace agreement. If they do not, new Russian-US talks will be held to discuss possible steps, including the use of force.
"A major peacekeeping UN operation is contemplated," Mr. Kozyrev explained. "We are determined to commit both our efforts and even our military to be sure that these agreements are properly monitored." Defense Minister Pavel Grachev participated in luncheon talks held after a morning meeting between Christopher and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
"If, however, the Vance-Owen plan is not accepted and implemented, the United States and Russia will immediately resume their discussion on new and tougher measures," said a joint statement after the talks. "No measures are prejudged or excluded from consideration."
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, along with a delegation of US senators holding talks with their parliamentary counterparts, praised Russia for its readiness to act in close partnership with the US. The joint statement "is a strong signal ... that the international community is going to work together and going to stand firm," said Sen. Nunn, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. He stressed the importance of the statement not ruling out the use of force.
Kozyrev carefully avoided questions about what specific "new and tougher" steps might be taken. He implied instead that the Russian side hopes the mere threat of force will be enough to bring the Serbs into line.
"In Christian tradition, be it Orthodox or Catholic or whatever, it is rare that hell is described in specific terms," Kozyrev said. "It is even more threatening and more meaningful when hell is used as something which will follow things."
CHRISTOPHER tried to put the best face on the apparent reluctance of the Russians - as well as other European allies - to give immediate backing to the use of military means.
"President Clinton's recommendations ... are very much on the table and will be considered if necessary ... and on an urgent basis," Christopher said, "if, against our hopes, the Vance-Owen plan is not approved."
The self-styled parliament of the Bosnian Serbs was set to discuss and vote on the plan yesterday. In his meeting with Christopher, President Yeltsin "expressed guarded optimism that the Bosnian Serb parliament, faced with the likelihood of bloodshed, would show wisdom and make a crucial decision," according to the account provided by Yeltsin's press secretary to the official Itar-Tass news agency.
Russian diplomats believe that the decision of the Bosnian Serb leadership, backed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, to sign the Vance-Owen plan last week already has altered the situation there significantly.
Russian sympathy for Serbia is widespread, because of the extensive historical and cultural ties between the two peoples. But the Russian government has in recent days made clear that it will stand with the West in enforcing tough economic sanctions against the Serbian-dominated rump Yugoslav state as a means of putting pressure on the Serbs.
Russia abstained on the UN vote to impose such sanctions, but it has toughened its stance since Yeltsin's victory in an April 25 referendum on his rule.