IT was a sight that will remain with many Europeans for a long time: Russian troops were entering a strife-ravaged region of Europe far from Russia's borders, and the people who came out to meet the tanks were not hurling rocks and epithets, but flowers and good wishes.
The Russian troops who arrived in the Bosnian Serb-held outskirts of Sarajevo on Feb. 20 may wear the blue helmets of the United Nations, but for Europe they symbolize the striking return of Russia to the continent's center stage.
Even as most European leaders laud the Russian return as a necessary step toward peace in the former Yugo-slavia, many analysts are taking a broader view to the ramifications of this Russian resurgence for European affairs.
``The story of the [NATO] ultimatum is a small step toward peace, but a giant step toward Russia's return to the game of the ordering of Europe,'' says Josef Janning, head of the Research Group on European Affairs at the University of Mainz in Germany.
What some analysts see is the return to what one French observer calls a ``binary logic,'' a budding resurrection of the East-West equilibrium. Others say that assertion goes too far, but agree that it signals Russia's inescapable return as a central power in Europe.
``This doesn't mean we're headed back to an old bipolarity, but it is a normalization,'' says David Dyker, a Russian specialist at the University of Sussex in Britain. ``Gradually we're seeing the reemergence of a Russian sphere of influence.''
Western leaders were able to impose the ultimatum to remove heavy guns from around Sarajevo only after two major military powers, the US and France, saw eye-to-eye on a means for stopping the carnage in the Bosnian capital. And it was Russia's intervention that allowed the Serbs to bow to Western demands, thus avoiding the NATO airstrikes.
In the refashioned Bosnia peace negotiations, the US and Russia will join a process that up to now has been largely left to the 12 countries of the European Union. That means progress toward peace may actually take place, analysts note, since the three warring Bosnian factions will have their main advocates: The Croats will have Germany, the Muslims will have the US, and now, the Serbs will have Russia.
What this suggests is the final burial of the ``New World Order'' so vaunted in the Gulf war's aftermath, and a return to a form of the balance-of-power politics that Europe is more accustomed to.
``The true lesson of the Yugoslavia conflict is the return of Realpolitik, of nations and their clients, and of balance-of-power strategies,'' says Dr. Janning. ``It's the defeat of order based on norms and principles like democracy, human rights, and nonaggression.''
That scenario is rejected by officials in France, who rallied to bring the US and Russia to the Bosnia peace table. ``The worst of all dangers for an emerging Europe based on democracy and human rights is that this war continue and run the risk of spreading,'' says one official at the French Foreign Ministry. ``In that sense, Russia's return to the scene has many more advantages than inconveniences.''
THE clearest loser among the powers involved in the Bosnian peace effort is the European Union (formerly called the European Community) - itself an attempt to subordinate na-tional priorities to a collective interest.
The EU's inability to overcome internal differences enough to be a successful peacemaker in Bosnia was cruelly symbolized by French President Francois Mitterrand's Feb. 21 televised address on Bosnia. The French leader spoke of the important roles France, the US, Russia, and the ``allies'' had played in moving the Bosnian conflict to a ``new phase,'' but he never once mentioned Europe or the EU.
Mr. Mitterrand said France would call on the UN Security Council to put Sarajevo under immediate UN administration, and called for rapid action, building on NATO's success, to truly end Sarajevo's siege and extend ``allied pressure [to] other Bosnian towns and zones ... where violence reigns.''
Also making glaringly clear the EU's inability to act in concert was Greece's decision on Feb. 16 to close its border with Macedonia to the passage of most goods. Greece has a long-running dispute with the former Yugoslav republic over its claim to the name and symbols of the ancient empire of Macedonia. Some analysts say Greece took advantage of Russia's emergence on the Balkan scene to close the border - rankling its EU partners, who have recognized Macedonia.
The debate now shaking Europe's opinionmakers is whether the rush to capitalize on the silencing of guns in Sarajevo will result in a bad peace for Europe, setting an example of rewards for ethnic-based aggression.
``Any peace plan adopted will require the Serbs to retreat from some of the territory they now hold, so it's not as simple as force over the rule of law,'' one French official says. ``The important thing is to end this war, even with a less-than-perfect peace.''
But others argue that unless the Serbs, the prime aggressors, are forced to make heavy concessions, the precedent will haunt Europe for years. ``Any peace that doesn't demand that,'' says French historian Alain Finielkraut, ``will simply be a disaster.''