On the surface, the situation in the Balkans may look rather optimistic at the moment: the Croats and Muslims have ceased fighting; some sense of normality has been restored to Sarajevo; and the crisis around Gorazde has been defused. In a broader context of European security, however, it has rarely looked more threatening. After Gorazde and Sarajevo, rival mobilizations at Brcko launched another spiral of threats and counter-threats. The un has warned all three sides not to provoke trouble but even if confrontation at Brcko is contained, other potential flashpoints could precipitate a wider conflict. Offensives and counter-offensives may begin. In the middle of this is a small Contact Group comprising mid-ranking diplomats from the us, France, Britain and Russia who, divided amongst themselves, are trying to persuade the Serbs and Muslims to cut a deal on a ceasefire. This is a remote prospect indeed.

The war in the former Yugoslavia entered a new phase in February after nato presented the Bosnian Serbs with an ultimatum demanding that the army of General Ratko Mladic remove all its heavy weaponry stationed within a twenty-kilometre radius of Sarajevo. The ultimatum was in response to the death of sixty-eight people in the Bosnian capital’s open-air market on February 5th. They were all killed by a single mortar shell, the only one fired that day by either side according to the United Nations. The outcry in the international media was sufficient to provoke the Americans into forcing their nato allies to agree on an ultimatum. However, it is important to note that the United States acted upon the effects of a lone mortar whose origin officially remains unknown.

The previous summer Sarajevo had come under sustained artillery attack as the Serbs successfully pushed Bosnian army troops off Mount Igman. This was a bloody campaign which included a steady flow of civilian casualties inside the Bosnian capital. When pushed by various lobbies to launch air strikes, the Clinton administration refused while simultaneously reiterating its ‘Russia First’ policy in Eastern Europe. Washington was adamant that it would not endanger its close relations with President Yeltsin for the sake of a localized war in the Balkans. The rhetoric of Clinton’s Yugoslav policy has been subject to dramatic and often irrational swings. The emotive language, however, has successfully clouded the absence of any coherent policy. The United States consistently undermined the Vance–Owen plan despite the fact that this constitutional sketch insisted upon a sovereign Bosnian state (thus denying the Serbs their primary war aim). Instead, the White House (Vice-President Al Gore in particular) encouraged the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, to stall on signing it by indicating Washington’s determination to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government. At the same time, Secretary of State Warren Christopher trumpeted Washington’s preferred option of ‘Lift and Strike’ referring to the arms embargo and nato bombers. However when the opportunity arose to use air strikes at the time of Igman, Washington drew back, reluctant it seems to become actively involved in the Yugoslav crisis.

Two things happened between Igman and the Sarajevo market incident. The first was the success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the December elections in Russia. President Yeltsin had underestimated the depth of anti-Western sentiment among ordinary Russians and in particular the armed forces. The message was not lost on Yeltsin, to judge by the rapid political shift made by his foreign minister, Andrej Kozyrev, over the past six months. Until the elections, Kozyrev was one of the two key pro-American politicians in Yeltsin’s cabinet. Following the elections, however, Kozyrev suddenly switched the focus of Russian foreign policy, concentrating on the rights of Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics, the ‘near abroad’, and on certain strategic issues such as the disputed ownership of the Black Sea fleet and the timetable for the withdrawal of troops from the Baltic states. Since the Igman incident, when the possibility of air strikes was discussed seriously for the first time, Kozyrev had also been warning about precipitate nato action in the Balkans which could lead ‘to all-out war’.footnote1 The Russian foreign minister was adapting his policy to fit more comfortably within the contours of a wounded Russian imperialism.

The other symbol in Yeltsin’s cabinet so critical to American perceptions was Yegor Gaidar. In mid January this year, President Clinton travelled to Moscow to underline America’s support for rapid economic reform in Russia. During the visit, Yeltsin reiterated Russia’s desire to join g7; to see us trade barriers on products from key primary and secondary industries raised; and to take possession of loans promised by the West but as yet unreleased. Clinton gave some assurances on the final two points but again stressed American opposition to the first. Barely had Airforce One touched down back in Washington than the news came through that Gaidar had been forced to resign. Boris Fyodorov was quick to follow. The only committed pro-American politician left in the cabinet was Kozyrev and his commitment was demonstrably evaporating. The New York Times and the Washington Post had described the Moscow visit as useful and successful. The perception in Moscow was apparently different.

Since then Russian–American relations have deteriorated in a number of areas including Bosnia-Hercegovina. For both Washington and Moscow, Bosnia is just one part of a more complex puzzle whose pieces include Ukraine, the Baltics, nato’s relations with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics (particularly with regard to the ‘Partnership for Peace’), as well as the continuing problems of Russia’s external and internal economic development. Yet Bosnia has a very special place in that puzzle as it is still the theatre of a very nasty, hot war whose two central players are working hard to seduce their allies in Washington and Moscow to intervene on opposing sides.

As soon as the Sarajevo ultimatum was imposed, the United States and Russia embarked on a collision course. As one despairing un officer remarked to me in the Bosnian capital at the time, ‘the Russians and Americans are about to sort out their problems with a proxy war and they demonstrate the historical nous of two donkeys by choosing Sarajevo as the place to start it!’ Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the Commander of un forces in Bosnia, was an extremely capable British plant appointed to his post in Sarajevo with the collusion of the French. London and Paris had been observing with growing concern the rise in the rhetorical temperature between Russia and America on the Bosnia issue. Both the British and French governments were aware that if a proxy war between the Russians and Americans were to break out over Bosnia, or were the Balkan war itself to spread, then the main losers would be neither Moscow nor Washington but the European Union.