Have the Serbs finally won in Bosnia? Or have they crossed a line that makes their defeat inevitable? Answers must come in the next week or two, and their impact on East-West relations may be drastic.
Sarajevo lives almost entirely on relief shipments. The Bosnian Serbs have closed the airport that brings in those shipments and imposed a blockade of overland shipments. Trapped in Sarajevo with its 380,000 inhabitants is the entire U.N. force stationed there.
The Serbs, retaliating for last Sunday's NATO attack at Gorazde, have in effect declared war on the United Nations. Meanwhile, in Serbia proper, Cable News Network and Agence France-Presse have been expelled, and comparable actions against other foreign media are expected. Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic has ordered his troops to "shoot down any aircraft flying in their direction," according to a Serbian radio report.
UNPROFOR, the U.N. force in Bosnia, cannot defend itself against the land mines and artillery shells intended to kill its people. If it must continue to face this level of hostility, UNPROFOR may well be forced to withdraw; and there would then follow the debacle of a total Serbian victory with a bloody sack of Sarajevo--or NATO intervention.
A Serbian military triumph would transform the political prospects of the Serbs' one enthusiastic ally, Russian neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky and his party would claim, with reason, that Russia could do in the erstwhile republics of the Soviet Union as the Serbs have done in Bosnia. Ominously, Russia has already announced plans for the unilateral stationing of troops in those newly independent countries.
Rather than send the Russian right wing such a signal, NATO might choose to step into the breach left by a collapsing UNPROFOR. Reversing UNPROFOR's priorities, NATO would achieve military security first, then proceed to relief work.
The likelier outcome may well be the former. In other words, UNPROFOR may collapse and bring NATO down with it, the failure of the alliance to take any action becoming the announcement of its demise. But this moment of crisis in the West is also a moment of crisis in the East for those who dread the return of the Cold War. In the aftermath of the Sarajevo ultimatum, Russia was expected to put pressure on the Serbs, while Germany and the United States put pressure on, respectively, the Croats and Muslims. The German-American pressure worked: The Croats and Muslims have signed a peace treaty that is holding up. The Russian pressure, by contrast, has been without effect. Indeed, the Bosnian Serbs sharply escalated their ethnic cleansing in northern Bosnia and reportedly concealed their Gorazde plans from their Russian ally.
If the Russians can force the Serbs to allow the Sarajevo airport to reopen soon, if they can force a major Serbian back-down from belligerency toward the United Nations, a grim re-polarization of East-West relations will be averted. Failing that, the Serbs will indeed win, or NATO will take major action and the Serbs will lose. Either way, East-West re-polarization could follow.
Europe has procrastinated in the Balkans long enough, alas, for the Russian right to awaken, and that awakening has grievously raised the stakes. One could wish it were not so, but it is so.
In the days ahead the trump card may be Russia's to play, but all of Europe and the United States are in the game.