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An Embarrassed Russia

THE angry reaction of Moscow special envoy Vitaly Churkin to the Serb offensive in Gorazde is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal scene. Part of the tragedy in Gorazde is due to Russia's miscalculation of the Serbs. Mr. Churkin had promised Western leaders that Moscow could deliver a halt to the brutal Serb attack on Gorazde if a lifting of sanctions on Belgrade could be discussed and the NATO bombing stopped.

Mr. Churkin, however, was shocked, shocked to find that his Serb counterparts were ``liars,'' as he openly called them on Monday. What Churkin discovered, as Gorazde was shelled during peace talks, is that Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic is not interested in the negotiating process, even one from friendly Moscow, if it does not conform to a campaign of militant nationalism. General Mladic is playing to the audience of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, not Boris Yeltsin. He is shrewdly and contemptuously stoking anti-Western fires in Russian popular opinion. Every time he flouts the West by, for example, shooting down a British NATO plane, he succeeds.

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Churkin and Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev had hoped for another diplomatic breakthrough, a Russian triumph like the one following the NATO ultimatum when they helped back the Serbs off Sarajevo. The unfocused and ad hoc nature of American and European policy in Bosnia gave them the space and influence to do so. Yet Moscow's latest failure shows more clearly that however helpful Russia can be and however important its role still is, the United States, Europe, and NATO cannot rely on Moscow to be the principal broker on key moral and strategic problems like genocide in Europe.

Never mind that Mr. Kozyrev was two years too late in saying Tuesday that Serbs should ``no longer try the world community's patience.'' Washington needs such signals now. However, the White House must also be aware that Churkin and Kozyrev are in some ways still just two negotiators who have been embarrassed and who have allowed a Russian loss of face. Whether they represent the true feelings of Russians in the parliament and the Army is another question. Many of those Russians do not mind the program and tactics of the brutish Mladic who, for all intents and purposes, is now the chief policymaker in Bosnia.

Still, even those in the Clinton administration who feel Moscow is the No. 1 hurdle to action in Bosnia now must admit the Russian failure there allows a window of opportunity for the US and the European Union to act.

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