Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 21

Russia joined its five Western Contact Group partners—the United States, Germany, France, Britain and Italy–in approving, on January 29, a strongly worded ultimatum aimed at compelling Yugoslav authorities and Kosovo Albanian leaders to launch peace talks over the worsening conflict in Kosovo. But Moscow drew a clear distinction between the Contact Group decision–which it insisted involved no threat of force–and a series of parallel NATO actions aimed at backing up the new diplomatic initiative with exactly that–a credible threat of military force.

The ultimatum–delivered over the weekend to both Belgrade and Pristina–sets a February 19 deadline for agreement on a negotiated settlement to end the war in Kosovo. Under the plan, political talks are to begin no later than February 6 in the French city of Rambouillet. The settlement would grant “substantial autonomy” to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority while limiting the number of Yugoslav troops and special police units in Kosovo. The statement called on the Serbs to stop “all offensive actions/repression” in Kosovo. Both sides are to be held “accountable if they fail to take the opportunity now offered to them” to end the conflict (International and Russian agencies, January 29-30; Washington Post, January 30-31).

Russia, which claims traditional ties to Serbia and has long been Belgrade’s strongest backer and apologist, appeared to have several reasons for going along with the Contact Group decision. First, and most important, was the willingness of the other Contact Group members to avoid any explicit mention of military reprisals against Belgrade in the event that the latest peace initiative fails. Moscow was also undoubtedly satisfied by the fact that the Contact Group ultimatum was delivered to both sides in the current conflict. Moscow has long placed the primary blame for continuing violence in Kosovo on the province’s ethnic Albanian rebels. Russian diplomats have also complained over what they say is the West’s failure to pressure the Kosovo Albanian leadership into peace talks.

Russian diplomats, including Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, were highly critical, however, of a January 28 NATO threat. The Western alliance warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that he faced NATO airstrikes if he failed to meet commitments he made to the international community last October. “Russia “categorically rejects” threats of force against Yugoslavia, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said on January 29. It also repeated Moscow’s standard injunction that “any attempt to use force against a sovereign state without UN Security Council authorization is inadmissible” (Russian agencies, January 29).