WASHINGTON -- After remaining mostly on the sidelines since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia is again a force to be contended with in Eastern Europe.
Moscow's high-profile efforts to avert North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes against Bosnian Serbs foreshadow a larger role than it has played so far in seeking a negotiated end to the 2-year-old war. Its emissary, Vitaly Churkin, is expected to be a key behind-the-scenes operator today in a multination conference in Bonn, Germany, on the Yugoslav conflict.
With the United States committed to help implement a peace agreement with ground troops, thus reassuring Bosnian Muslims, Russia may push for some compensating security guarantees for its old allies, the Serbs.
Recognizing Moscow's larger role, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher has invited his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, Washington to discuss Bosnia.
Over the long term, Russia has signaled that it can act swiftly and adroitly to prevent any forceful NATO moves east of the area that the Western alliance traditionally protected.
U.S. officials say it's too early to judge how forceful Russia will be in trying to prevent NATO's involvement in potential Eastern European trouble spots in the future. But one senior official acknowledged that Russia's posture may collide with NATO's new, broader view of European security, one that sees what happens in Central and Eastern Europe as directly affecting the well-being of Western Europe.
There is "inevitably going to be some tension" between NATO and Russia over security threats in Central and Eastern Europe, this official said.
"They hated the idea that NATO would suddenly pull something off without their involvement," says the official, referring to the threat of air strikes to get Serbian guns away from Sarajevo.
"The bottom is real simple. They want to be players. They don't want to be left out," the official said.
The Clinton administration has been portraying the Russian role in the last several days in the best possible light, citing it as an example of how two Cold War adversaries were able to prevent a blow-up and achieve a common objective by cooperating.
But officials acknowledge tense moments, including what two officials described as an "aggressive" letter to President Clinton from Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Wednesday and a Russian envoy's warning that air strikes would lead to "all-out war."
Faced with the first serious NATO threat against Bosnian Serbs, Russia swung into action late last week.
It sent its own troops under United Nations command to Sarajevo to give a psychological boost to the Serbs, who greeted them as heroes. Its action helped get Serbian leaders to comply with a NATO ultimatum and pull back heavy weapons threatening the Bosnian capital.
This marked a potential watershed in Russia's dealing with the NATO alliance since the collapse of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance. Longtime religious and cultural ties with the Serbs are a hot domestic political button in Russia. But Russia has generally avoided getting embroiled in Central Europe's problems.
Washington has been cautious about Russian anxieties. Fear of the impact that NATO military action would have on Mr. Yeltsin's domestic position influenced Mr. Clinton's decision in February 1993 to back away from his call for air strikes against Serbian positions.
In May, Mr. Clinton backed away from his push to lift the arms embargo imposed on Bosnian Muslims and launch compensatory air strikes against Bosnian Serbs in part because of an implicit threat of a Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council.
But the Feb. 5 shelling of the Sarajevo market, killing 68 in the Bosnian capital, propelled the West into a tougher stance.
This time, the United States and its allies appear to have made a conscious decision not to grant the Russians any kind of veto. But they did try to smooth the way with Moscow.
On Feb. 7, a senior diplomat, James Collins, was dispatched to Moscow to explain generally the allies' plans and to enlist Russian help in getting the Serbs to ease the siege of Sarajevo.
At that time, Russian Foreign Ministry officials told Mr. Collins they were thinking of deploying some of the troops they already had under U.N. command in Croatia to the Bosnian capital. The United States neither encouraged nor discouraged the move.
After NATO issued its ultimatum, it took Mr. Clinton three days to get Mr. Yeltsin on the phone to discuss it with him. When the two finally connected, Mr. Yeltsin argued that if Russia was to bring pressure on the Serbs, the United States had to pressure Bosnia's Muslim-led government to cooperate on an overall peace settlement.
Mr. Clinton responded that all parties had to be prepared to meet the Muslims' "reasonable" requirements. At the end of the call, U.S. officials say, Mr. Yeltsin pledged to use Russia's influence to get the Serbs to stop the shelling and move their heavy weapons away from Sarajevo.
But five days later, Mr. Yeltsin adopted a tougher line in an "aggressive" letter to President Clinton, demanding to be notified before NATO moved ahead on air strikes and saying that Mr. Clinton should notify the Serbs that they wouldn't be bombed if they complied with NATO's ultimatum.
Mr. Clinton, replying on Feb. 18, pledged every effort to contact Mr. Yeltsin if NATO decided to bomb.
By then, special Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin had already reached a deal with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that signaled an end to the crisis: The Serbs would comply with NATO's demand, withdrawing some heavy weapons and putting the rest under U.N. control.
Russia, in turn, would dispatch some 400 of its own U.N. troops to Sarajevo to give the Serbs confidence that the Muslims couldn't mount an assault once the heavy arms were pulled back.
U.S. officials deny being taken by surprise by the Russian troop movement, saying Defense Secretary William J. Perry was notified that morning and that Mr. Christopher got a detailed briefing from Mr. Kozyrev at 1 p.m. the same day.
The day before, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering had been told in Moscow that Mr. Churkin was making progress toward getting Serbian compliance.
Publicly, the administration plays down the impact of Russia's involvement in getting the Serbs to cave in.
"I think that the principal responsibility for the good results achieved in Sarajevo has to be attributed to the resolve and determination of NATO," Mr. Christopher asserted yesterday.
Privately, the senior U.S. official involved in Russia policy replied, "I don't know," when asked if the Serbs would have withdrawn without the Russian presence.
No one denies that the Russian troop deployment changes the (( security equation around Sarajevo, putting Russians in the confrontation line, standing in the way of any Muslim assault on the Serbs. At a minimum, it offered Serbs "a face-saver, a new element," this official said.
But this official added, "We had a situation which, in another era, could have led to a real confrontation." Washington's new relationship with Russia "allowed us to tackle a problem and get through it without [its] blowing up."