Bombing the Serbs, NATO Hits the Russians


Paris. -- It is important to get the bombing in Bosnia over with. The collateral damage it is doing is political. In Russia the NATO air campaign has become an issue in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for December 17. It is also making political trouble in ex-communist Eastern Europe and in Greece.

The bombings have little to do with Russia's strategic interests, which today do not extend to the Adriatic. They challenge Russian national self-esteem in the aftermath of communism's collapse, and remind Russians that NATO is an organization to fight wars.

President Boris Yeltsin now says that it would be "a gross political error" for NATO to expand into Central and Eastern Europe. The nationalist demagogue who wants to become Russia's next president, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, demands that the Black Sea fleet be sent to the Adriatic Sea to defend the Bosnian Serbs -- which is bombastic nonsense. But Gen. Alexander Lebed, whom recent polls show as potentially a strong candidate to succeed Mr. Yeltsin (in the presidential vote set for June 1996), has said that if NATO incorporates Poland, this could provoke a third world war.

The concerns which underlie these nationalist reactions are comprehensible. The nationalist and neo-communist movements in Russia are major forces. Russia's Orthodox Church is also -- for the most part -- blindly committed to the Serbs, and influences Orthodox opinion in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.

It is important for the West to limit, to the extent possible, the humiliation of Russia inherent in NATO's present air campaign. Russia has, and should have, no veto over what the West does, but the West should also be realistic in its assessment of the political consequences in Russia of current events.

It is ominous that the NATO mission seems to have acquired a new interpretation. Reports from U.S., U.N. and NATO spokesmen suggest not only that the air campaign may continue indefinitely but that Serbian artillery around Sarajevo, as such, is being spared in the bombings, while air defense, communications and munitions targets are hit.

Serbian artillery is attacked (by counter-battery fire) only when it is used against Sarajevo. Otherwise, according to a U.N. Protection Force statement during the weekend, the Serbian guns have been spared by NATO. Why? "To permit them to be evacuated by the Serbs."

This suggests that the goal is public humiliation of Gen. Ratko Mladic. This is a bad mistake, feeding not only the general's obstinacy but that paranoia among Serbs which already has produced their conviction that Bosnia's Serbs are the victims of a world conspiracy set on Serbian extermination, hence that mindless resistance is their only possible course.

NATO's and the U.N.'s assigned purpose is to assure that U.N.-guaranteed Sarajevo and Gorazde are free of attack and that land and air access to them are secure. It is not to test the will of General Mladic. What General Mladic does or says is a matter of indifference, if Sarajevo and Gorazde are safe.

Surely what NATO should do is systematically dig out the guns within the protected zones around those cities, and make them safe. Continued security could be assured by counter-battery measures and air patrols. The big bombing and missile campaign should stop as soon as possible. With this the West would do a favor to itself, to Russia, and to its repellent but ineluctable Serbian interlocutor, Slobodan Milosevic -- who has just provided an interesting interpretation of the present situation.

In dealing with regimes such as Mr. Milosevic's (communist in origin), it is essential to pay close attention to what they say. The Belgrade daily closest to government, Politika, has described last Friday's Geneva accord as "historic." The agreement "realized the vital interests of the Serbian people and was a victory for the peace policy conducted by President Slobodan Milosevic." Politika said that the Geneva recognition of a Serbian republic within the Bosnian state "will permit the marginalization of those who hold to the military option." It identified these as "warmongers" who may be held responsible "for the worst crimes," and proposed that NATO stop the bombings so as not to strengthen these Serbian "warmongers."

NATO should take that advice. It should finish off General Mladic's artillery in the exclusion zones and report that its job is done. It should set up a system to assure that no new guns come in. President Milosevic can deal with General Mladic.

Mr. Milosevec and his Bosnian and Croatian counterparts will then have to agree to new frontiers for Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and the autonomous Bosnian Serb republic. Afterward, they should be left to defend what they have agreed to.

It is not the U.S. or the U.N. which should police the agreed borders (if agreement is reached). The borders must be self-policed. Therefore, the moment the economic embargo on Serbia-Macedonia is lifted, if not before, the arms embargo on Bosnia (and Croatia) should end. The frontiers which emerge from these talks must be protected by those who have agreed to them. All should be placed in the position to do so.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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