BULLET by bullet, helicopter by helicopter, the Balkan state of Croatia has steadily rearmed itself during three years of a peace arrangement with rival Serbs.
Now flush with weapons, Croatia threatens to boot out international peacekeepers next month and, as Western officials fear, set the stage for reigniting the original war that spilled into Bosnia, turning former Yugoslavia into a post-cold-war quagmire.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, angry that the United Nations has not made any significant progress in returning the Serb-occupied territory of Krajina to the Croatian fold, appears ready to launch limited military strikes, as he has done in the past, to pressure the Serbs if they continue to insist on their own state.
His patience has run thin three years after a truce was brokered by former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and international peacekeepers were sent in. The truce left one-third of Croatia in Serb hands.
Western diplomats have warned President Tudjman that a return to war could be catastrophic for Croatia.
During the 1991 six-month Serbo-Croat war, 10,000 people were killed, and towns such as Vukovar were completely leveled.
At that time, the Yugoslav Army was run by communist-oriented generals who believed in preserving the Yugoslav republic and didn't like the idea of interethnic war. But today, that Army is staffed by Serb nationalists who adhere to the nationalist ideology in Serbia.
In an effort to keep both sides talking, international mediators presented Tudjman a plan Jan. 30 that would give the Serbs in Krajina a high degree of autonomy in two areas where they formed a majority before the 1991 war.
But the plan appears stalled. Each side has seemingly irreconcilable goals, and the Krajina Serbs outright reject the plan.
For now, Croatian officials profess peace. ``We will not go on the offensive to regain the entire occupied territory by military means,'' says Gen. Anton Tus, Tudjman's chief military adviser, ``if there is any danger, it is not a danger of a great war, there is a possibility of minor incidents.''
If the 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops depart, such ``incidents'' could easily escalate and draw the Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslav Army into the fray, UN officials warn.
By beefing up its own weapons production and importing arms despite an international arms embargo against former Yugoslavia, Croatia has improved its fighting capacity, Western military attaches believe. ``The Croatian Army now is impressive and rather cocky,'' one military attache says.
Clandestine purchases, made primarily in eastern Europe, have included 20 MIG-21s and a smaller number of MI-24 assault helicopters, smuggled into the country in parts and assembled at a factory on the outskirts of Zagreb.
About 70 percent of components for M-84 tanks manufactured in the town of Slavonski Brod in eastern Croatia are bought on the international black market. Officials at the Duro Davkovic plant here, formerly supplied by other Yugoslav republics, say production is growing steadily. They hope to renew a prewar export order to Kuwait this year.
In addition to the ex-Soviet Union, the Islamic world is increasingly a source of weaponry, because of Croatia's willingness to serve as an arms-trafficking conduit for the Muslim-led Bosnian Army - which has reportedly received 1,500 tons of Iranian ammunition via Croatia.
``In 1991, the Serbs, with the Yugoslav Army, was much stronger than Slovenia or Croatia or Bosnia,'' General Tus says. ``Now both Croatia and Bosnia together are stronger than this new Yugoslav Army. We now have a better balance.''
It's a view shared by many in Croatia and accounts for the belief that a war with the Krajina Serbs is winnable. The conviction is strengthened by the Croatian leadership's apparent calculation that Belgrade would not intervene.
Tudjman seems to believe that his counterpart in Belgrade would be prepared to abandon Krajina in return for a Serbo-Croat partition deal in Bosnia. He also contends that Serbia is far more concerned with getting sanctions lifted than the fate of Croatia's Krajina Serbs.
If war does erupt, however, Croatia would be outgunned despite its vigorous rearmament, according to Western diplomats, UN officials, and Croatian military analysts. Western diplomats suspect that Croatia overestimates its own military strengths and wrongly assumes that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is ready to sacrifice parts of his dream for a ``Greater Serbia.''
``The Croatian leadership suffers from self-delusion and wishful thinking. It could be a fatal combination,'' one envoy says.
Croatia's rearmament program has given it a military edge over at least the Krajina Serbs. In terms of hardware, the Croatian Army has almost twice as much artillery and combat aircraft and about the same number of tanks as its foe.
But if Croatia has to contend with the Yugoslav Army and the Bosnian Serbs in an attempt to seize Krajina, it would be outnumbered by the combined Serb forces by a factor of 15 to 1, in terms of combat planes alone.
``We take Tudjman's threats seriously, and if the Krajina Serbs are really threatened, of course we will help them - we'd have no hesitation,'' says a high-ranking official in Mr. Milosevic's ruling Serbian Socialist Party. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has said his soldiers would defend Krajina ``in any event of new Croatian aggression.''
Croats face defeat
If the Yugoslav Army and the Bosnian Serbs intervened in Croatia, the Croats would almost certainly face defeat, says retired Croatian Gen. Karlo Gorinsek, a respected military commentator.
He believes Croatian Army tactics are fundamentally flawed, drawn up largely by political appointees who now dominate the upper echelons of the military. ``Most of them have never smelt the battlefield - they tell Tudjman whatever he wants to hear,'' he says.
The general says the Croatian strategy assumes that the Krajina territory can by whittled at in piecemeal fashion with a series of surgical strikes. He contends that while limited military operations would lessen the risk of Yugoslav Army involvement, retaliation from Croatian Serb and Bosnian Serb artillery and missile batteries would be massive.
The last time the Croats lunged deep inside Krajina, he notes, they were forced to beat a hasty retreat when Serb shells crashed into several towns, including Zagreb.
``The Croatian Army's capabilities have improved tremendously. But the only way to overwhelm the Krajina Serbs without incurring heavy losses is to launch a blitzkrieg,'' General Gorinsek says. ``We simply don't have the resources for that over a 700 kilometer [435 mile] front line. If we tried, it would be a long bloody affair.''
UN officials believe war is inevitable even if the two sides continue to talk peace once the peacekeepers go. While they've recently made significant progress on economic cooperation - agreeing to share roads, electricity, and oil - they are unlikely to resolve their differences.
According to one UN official, Croatia is unlikely to offer the Serbs more than political autonomy in certain parts of Krajina, while the Serbs are unlikely to accept anything less than independence. ``The Croats count on subjugating the Serbs to get what they want. And there are certainly no Gandhis in Krajina,'' he says.
In the worst-case scenario, the UN fears that fighting could break out as they withdraw, with both sides moving quickly to fill the vacuum left by the peacekeepers presently deployed along cease-fire lines.
``Local commanders would look for a tactical advantage,'' a UN military observer says. ``The zone of separation between the two factions would disappear. Dozens of skirmishes would break out. If the UN's not there to mediate, the fighting is bound to escalate.''