THE sight of Serbs cheering as Russian paratroopers rolled through Bosnia recently had eerie reverberations of the past.
For Serbs, the scene was reminiscent of the Soviet Red Army rolling in to liberate Yugoslavia from Nazi occupation. But for many Bosnian Muslims, it was more akin to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Russia, however, sees itself as neither liberator nor invader. Instead, the Russian Army has taken on a new role: peacemaker.
For Moscow, peacekeeping is now the priority of its military, and enforcing order and stability among its neighbors in the ``near abroad,'' as the former Soviet republics are called, is the main aim of Russian foreign policy. Aside from the Russian battalion of 1,200 troops participating in United Nations forces in the former Yugoslavia, about 16,000 are deployed as ``peacekeepers'' in former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Tajikistan, and the Transcaucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan).
For more than a year, Russia has openly asked the West and the international community to recognize its role as the preeminent peacekeeper in the territory of its former empire. Russian officials argue that their troops are performing a service to the world, ensuring stability in regions torn by ethnic and civil conflict and using Russian links to its former Soviet ``brothers'' to mediate solutions.
But in the West and among Russia's neighbors, there are considerable fears that ``peacekeeping'' is merely a euphemism for a restoration of Russian imperial rule. Russian troops may bring an end to the shooting in war zones, critics say, but they may never leave.
Russia's attempts at peacemaking are now the touchstone of its future relations with the West. How this problem is dealt with will illuminate whether Russia and the West can find a path toward permanent cooperation or will be forced by their divergent interests back onto the path of rivalry and even confrontation.
The Russian government itself has set this issue as a test of its relations with the West. ``Support for Russia in settling conflicts in the territory of the former USSR is a verification of the firmness of the partnership that is replacing the cold war between former enemies,'' Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev wrote in a major policy statement published in New Times in January.
The key demand from Moscow to the world is that its troops involved in conflict situations be given an international seal of approval. ``Russia deserves a United Nations mandate to carry out peacekeeping operations in the former Soviet Union,'' Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told his French counterpart in early February.
Russian officials go so far as to request international funding for their country's military missions, perhaps by subtracting the cost from Russia's contribution to the UN budget. Col. Gen. Georgy Kondratyev, the military commander of Russian peacekeeping operations, even suggested in a recent policy article that a special force to be formed from two Army divisions would be exempt from international treaty limits on conventional forces.
Alongside such a ``mandate,'' the Russians also are promoting what they see as their ``model'' for peacemaking, carried out in the Moldova and South Ossetia conflicts. In those two cases, Russia negotiated a cease-fire, enforced by Russian troops standing in between, along with monitoring patrols of the two conflicting sides. Russian officials depict their deployment in Sarajevo, on the lines between Serb and Muslim forces, as another example of this.
Moscow is now urgently trying to negotiate a similar cease-fire arrangement in the five-year war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the status of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. And Russia seeks UN backing for deployment of troops to police a shaky cease-fire between Georgia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Russian officials argue that stopping the fighting is the prerequisite to getting down to a real peace negotiation. But in all these cases, including the two ongoing Transcaucasian wars, little or no progress has in fact been made toward a political solution. The cease-fire tends to freeze in place territorial conquests won in battle, as happened for example in Cyprus and is currently the danger in Bosnia.
Going nowhere fast
This also means that Russian troops, once inserted, are hard to remove. In the case of Moldova for example, the Russian 14th Army remains in place even though there are no talks between the Moldovan government and rebel Russian-populated region of Dniestr, and despite Moldovan calls for its removal, as was previously agreed.
There is a lack of political progress in Moldova and Ossetia, admits Amb. Vladimir Kazimirov, the president's special envoy in the Karabakh conflict. ``But can we ignore the positive fact that for a year and half, people are no longer dying? We think even a bad peace is better than a war.''
For the most part, the West has tended to acquiesce in the need for a dominant Russian role, if for no other reason than it was not willing itself to get involved in these conflicts. But there are growing signs, as in Bosnia, that the US administration is ready to take a more active stance.
``The Russian approach ... raises the specter of a totally Russian-dominated solution, which is clearly worrying to many people, including the Russians, who say they want to avoid this,'' says a US official. ``It is also true that they have saved a lot of lives, but it is also not easy to condone if you could find a full-type UN peacekeeping solution to these problems.''
US officials feel that such a UN presence would deflect mounting suspicions that Moscow is pursuing a ``neoimperialist'' policy in areas such as the Transcaucasus. Newly independent states such as Georgia and Azerbaijan are under considerable pressure to accept a renewed Russian military and economic presence in exchange for Russian help in settling horrendous conflicts, Western diplomats here say.
While publicly seeking Moscow's help, those states are desperately searching for other sources of support. Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze comes to Washington next week, a visit timed to the next round of Abkhazia talks, clearly seeking a greater US role. And Azeri leader Gaidar Aliyev has traveled in recent weeks to Turkey and Britain, shopping for some counter-balance to Moscow.
``In the region, everybody I suppose would like to see the Americans come in, arbitrate a settlement, and forget the Russians,'' a Western diplomat says. Washington is hardly ready to challenge Moscow in that way. But it is looking to significantly increase its diplomatic presence, sources say.
The United States policy, articulated most recently by President Clinton in his State of the Union message, is that it could support a Russian peacekeeping role as long as it conformed to ``international rules.'' This means the consent of the parties involved, an international mandate, and impartiality of the force, the US official explains.
Test case: Abkhazia
US officials are anticipating the first test of Moscow's true intentions to come in the Abkhazia case, where Russia, with Georgian support, is seeking an enlargement of a current small UN- observer mission into a full-scale UN peacekeeping force. Russian officials clearly envision a force comprised of Russian troops, along with international observers.
In UN practice, however, impartiality has meant that peacekeepers do not come from countries in the neighborhood.
``We have favored an operation in which no one state was dominant and that the peacekeepers came from a number of countries to ensure objectivity,'' the US official responds. In the Abkhazia case, non-Russian troops from countries such as the Scandanavian nations, with American financial backing, should make up more than half the force, he says.
If pressed, Russia may opt for a non-UN solution, although it would mean an end to its hopes for international backing for its peacekeepers. Then the resolve of the West to involve itself will be tested. ``But I'm afraid the West is overwhelmed,'' says Russian foreign policy analyst Alexei Pushkov. ``I don't think the West has the nerve to intervene in the former Soviet Union.''