THE first use of NATO force in 44 years came yesterday morning with the downing of four Serbian jet fighters that were bombing a munitions factory north of Sarajevo. The fighters were in violation of the no-fly zone over Bosnia that had been voted on by the United Nations in October of 1992. Serbs have openly flouted the no-fly zone since that time. Hundreds of violations of the resolution have occurred; Bosnian Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic used to fly his helicopter to battle sites, and relished getting his picture taken in front of the aircraft.
The downed planes represent a kind of back door to the use of NATO force. The act shows that even with Russian troops on the ground essentially protecting Serbs, NATO can deliver on a threat. Belgrade and Pale are on warning. Serb leaders have had their way for 22 months, taking whatever action suited them. The bombing of the munitions factory was a test by the Serbs, as NATO commander for Bosnia Adm. Jeremy Boorda suggested. If the NATO threat and military action are credible, Serb forces won't get away indefinitely with blatant aggression.
One important question: What will the Serbs do? Will they up the ante? After the jets were downed, Serbs began to shell the town of Tuzla; they moved tanks from under UN control around Sarajevo. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic immediately traveled to Moscow to plead his case with Russian hard-liners; his strategy, and that of his overlord, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, will be to open as wide a gap as possible between Russia and NATO, and Russia and the United States. They will try to pressure Moscow into a new position vis-a-vis the West.
That raises a second question: Will Russia now formally take the side of the aggressor in the Balkans? Moscow, it must be remembered, voted for the no-fly zone in October of 1992. Will it now reverse its position on an issue the entire international community (with an abstention by China) agreed upon?
Finally: NATO must keep the ultimatum pressure on. Sadly, real peace must carry a credible threat of force.