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Analysis From Washington -- A 'Most Dangerous Time' in Bosnia

Washington, July 11 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking about Bosnia on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said that "the next few months are going to be the most difficult we've had since we've gone into" that country.

In an address to the U.S. Naval Senior Enlisted Academy in the American state of Rhode Island, Perry enumerated the following problems ahead for the United States: the resettling of Bosnian refugees, the arresting of those accused of war crimes, and the holding of elections.

But another problem -- one which Perry conspicuosly did not mention -- may ultimately prove to be the most difficult of all: the increasing friction between IFOR, the NATO-led peace implementation force, and Moscow, which has never been entirely happy with the subordinate role Russia has been forced to play in the former Yugoslavia.

In recent weeks, senior Russian commanders on the scene and Russian diplomats elsewhere have signalled their doubts about the future of IFOR and pointedly suggested that the countries of the region -- including, of course, Russia -- are fully capable of engaging in multi-national peacekeeping operations, without any help from NATO.

Such comments appear designed in the first instance to add to the already strong domestic pressures on the governments of NATO countries to pull their troops out of Bosnia relatively soon. U.S. President Bill Clinton, for example, originally promised that the American contingent would come out by the end of 1996, but more recently there have been suggestions that some American troops might remain at least into 1997.

Moreover, these Russian remarks are obviously part of the broader Russian campaign against any expansion of NATO. By suggesting that the countries of the region can and should do things on their own without any NATO participation, Moscow clearly hopes to provide yet another argument for those in the West who are reluctant to extend the Western defense alliance eastward.

And such Russian diplomatic arguments clearly have a domestic audience in Russia itself. In the wake of the Russian presidential elections, when many voted for candidates who advocated a more nationalist foreign policy, these comments about NATO and IFOR are very much part of suggestions by President Boris Yeltsin and his team that Moscow can and will play a more assertive role in the world.

But precisely because Russia's interests in the former Yugoslavia are so different from those of the West's -- Moscow has tended to back its fellow Slavs, the Serbs, throughout the conflict and has sharply opposed any effort by IFOR to arrest Serbian officials charged with having committed war crimes -- these latest statements by Perry and by Russian officials would seem to set the stage for serious disagreement.

Avoiding a dustup over the former Yugoslavia between Moscow and the West is certain to be among the subjects discussed in the upcoming flurry of meetings between senior American and Russian officials.

But as NATO forces begin to withdraw, as public pressure in the West builds for the arrest of those charged with war crimes, and as IFOR attempts to conduct elections in Bosnia, the differences in approach to the former Yugoslavia between the West and Russia seem likely to become a defining moment in European diplomacy.

And precisely because the stakes are so high -- the possible expansion of NATO eastwards and the possible extension of Russian influence into the Balkans -- a potentially serious dispute between the two sides, despite an outward show of good will, is ever more likely.