WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William J. Perry and his Russian counterpart agreed yesterday to set up a joint military support unit for a NATO mission to Bosnia, but failed to break a deadlock over the role of Russian troops in the main peacekeeping force.
The U.S.-Russian unit would concentrate mainly on civil engineering, transportation and other support tasks.
It would not include the sort of heavily armed combat troops to be deployed by NATO between the warring factions in Bosnia if and when they sign a settlement.
Russia has refused to put its combat troops under NATO command, and the United States is insisting that the peacekeeping operation be run solely by NATO.
"I am quite certain we will find our way out of the situation," said Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, the Russian defense minister.
Joint military exercises
He traveled with Mr. Perry yesterday to see 250 U.S. and 150 Russian troops practicing joint peacekeeping operations at Fort Riley, Kan.
The exercise at Fort Riley includes manning checkpoints, searching for land mines, escorting convoys and dealing with civil disturbances, activities likely to be part of the Bosnian mission. The exercise is costing the Pentagon about $2 million -- $1.2 million of it to pay for the Russian participation.
NATO is planning to send 60,000 peacekeepers, as many as 20,000 of them from the United States, into Bosnia for up to a year once a peace agreement is reached.
Negotiations on that settlement start among the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia at an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, next week.
On the table will be an American blueprint for dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina into two ethnic entities, one Serbian and the other a Muslim-Croatian federation. It also calls for a new constitution, would provide for the return of many of the war's millions of refugees and proposes the economic reconstruction of the country.
Secretary of State Warren C. Christopher will open the peace talks, which are expected to last two weeks or longer, on Wednesday.
If agreement is reached, a signing ceremony will be held in a major capital, possibly Washington or Paris. NATO troops would then be deployed within days.
Mr. Perry and General Grachev will continue their effort today to bridge the Russian insistence on being part of the force without serving under NATO. But U.S. officials have made it clear that the NATO operation will go ahead with or without Russian participation.
Since the two defense ministers last met, at a session two weeks ago in Geneva, there has been a series of diplomatic efforts -- including a summit at Hyde Park, N.Y., this week between President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin -- to try to settle the size, role and funding of the Russian military contingent in Bosnia.
The Russians initially offered up to 20,000 troops, more than the United States wanted or NATO needed.
Cash-strapped, they also wanted to know who would pay for their troops in Bosnia. The U.S. answer: the Kremlin.
The Milosevic question
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is emerging as the key figure in the peace talks scheduled to take place in Dayton.
Rejecting assertions by Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas that the administration may be "rolling out the red carpet for a war criminal," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said it was a "fantasy" to think there could be peace without Dr. Milosevic.
People who think that way "are completely separated from reality," Mr. Burns said, while also dismissing a request by Mr. Dole and 50 other senators to President Clinton that he seek congressional authorization before deploying U.S. troops to help enforce peace in Bosnia.
Mr. Clinton has the authority under the constitutional provision that makes him commander in chief of the armed forces, Mr. Burns said.
"We would hope that by the time that point is reached there will be an expression of support from Congress," he said.