WASHINGTON -- Russia agreed yesterday to serve in a Bosnia peacekeeping force under U. S. command, paving the way for a potentially historic military partnership between the former Cold War enemies.
Meeting in Brussels, Belgium, the U.S. and Russian defense ministers agreed that Russia would contribute two or three battalions, totaling at least 2,000 troops, to any peacekeeping force set up to enforce a Bosnian settlement.
In an arrangement that overcomes Kremlin objections, the Russian brigades would not, technically, be under NATO command.
Instead, they would be led by a Russian general who in turn would take orders from Army Gen. George A. Joulwan, commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
The agreement removes a major impediment to sending a U.S.-led force of tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers into Bosnia to enforce a peace settlement designed to end Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II.
"The military part of the forthcoming operation has been approved and coordinated," Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, the Russian defense minister, told reporters after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The agreement was disclosed as talks among the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian governments entered their second week at a military base outside Dayton, Ohio.
The aim of the talks is to work out a division of Bosnian territory between Serbs and the Muslim-Croatian federation and to fashion a constitution that creates two autonomous republics within a single Bosnian state.
For the first time, the president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, held lengthy direct negotiations in the same room with the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who is representing the Bosnian Serbs.
The talks were mediated by Richard C. Holbrooke, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for European affairs.
Russia wants to be part of any peacekeeping force in Bosnia as a way of asserting its importance in Europe.
However, Moscow had refused to allow its troops to serve under command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to which it does not belong.
The United States, meanwhile, has insisted that the peacekeeping force fall under NATO command, thus giving Americans overall control and avoiding the command problems that have troubled U.N. peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.
The solution reached is simple. Although General Joulwan is both the military leader of NATO and the commander of American forces in Europe, he will speak as U. S. commander rather than overall NATO commander when giving orders to Russian troops.
But while the scheme seemingly solved the problem of Russian participation, it may add new complications for the United States.
Congressional Republicans, most of whom oppose sending U.S. troops into Bosnia, said the new partnership adds a layer of uncertainty to what already promises to be a difficult operation.
Their concerns range from intelligence sharing to the posture Russia will adopt toward Bosnian Serbs, with whom they have historic ethnic and religious ties.
More threatening than U.S.
Moscow appears to see the 16-nation NATO alliance as somehow more threatening to Russia than the United States by itself.
NATO was designed to enforce the containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Russian fears of NATO have grown stronger in the past year as the alliance has moved forward gradually with plans to expand eastward and eventually include several former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.
"NATO has gotten quite bad press in Russia for the air strikes" launched against Bosnian Serb targets earlier this year, a NATO official said.
The distinction between General Joulwan's American and NATO roles is basically one of titles, NATO officials say.
"They will be NATO orders but will, so to speak, not be on NATO letterheads," said a senior U.S. military official, who briefed reporters in Brussels.
The plan was developed by General Joulwan and Russian Col. Gen. Leontiy Shevtsov, who is to command the Russian brigades.
Russia drastically scaled back the number of troops it planned to contribute, apparently because it will be forced to pick up the full cost of their participation.
Originally, Russia intended to send a division, numbering about 20,000.
While the U.S.-Russian military arrangements are mostly worked out, officials said they had not yet solved the problem of who will make the political decisions about how the peacekeeping force is to be employed, including when to use military force.
The United States wants the Atlantic Council, made up of NATO ambassadors, to have overall control, but the Russians want a strong say as well. A possible solution may allow a Russian diplomat to participate in the council discussions.
Two kinds of 'historic'
"I guess it is historic, but it remains to be seen whether it is historic-positive or historic-negative," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a Brookings Institution expert on national-security issues. If it works, the plan will improve relations between the American and Russian military establishments, he said.
"Certainly this could be a watershed operation for a successful test of the Partnership for Peace," said a White House official. The partnership allows East European countries to hook up with NATO but not formally join the alliance.
The United States and Russia had previously reached a separate agreement to send a joint engineering and logistical unit to Bosnia which would not be part of the NATO peace enforcement mission.