Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 96

In yet another suggestion that Russian foreign policy behavior has taken a secretive turn since President Vladimir Putin’s assumption of power, Russian news sources reported on May 13 that Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic had completed a five-day visit to Moscow one day earlier. The visit was surprising–and somewhat disturbing–on several counts. For one, it remained shrouded in secrecy and was reported by the Russian press after its conclusion. In addition, Ojdanic has been indicted by the UN court in The Hague for war crimes charges. The apparently warm welcome that the Yugoslav general received in Moscow was said for that reason to have astonished Western diplomats (UPI, May 15).

Finally, the clandestine nature of Ojdanic’s visit appears to continue a pattern of secrecy in the Kremlin’s conduct of foreign policy. Last month Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad also traveled to Moscow on a secret visit–reported to be the first such trip by an Iraqi defense chief since the 1991 Gulf War. The Russian government on that occasion also provided little information as to the substance of the talks which took place in Moscow from April 14-16, and the Russian Defense Ministry later was forced to deny reports that the two countries had discussed possible arms dealings. Ahmad’s visit touched on sensitive diplomatic ground because international sanctions continue to be in effect against Iraq and because Baghdad has refused for over a year now to allow the UN to undertake weapons inspections in Iraq (see the Monitor, April 20).

Moscow engaged in yet another act of clandestine diplomacy in late April when Russia’s UN ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, made an unannounced visit to Belgrade in tandem with his Chinese counterpart, ambassador Shen Guofeng. Little information was made available regarding the substance of Lavrov’s and Shen’s talks in Belgrade, which came on the eve of a three-day fact-finding mission to Kosovo by an eight-member UN Security Council delegation. Diplomats expressed irritation at the Russian and Chinese action, and Canada complained that the clandestine visit by Lavrov and Shen had compromised the broader UN mission (see the Monitor, April 28, May 5).

Like those two earlier diplomatic events, Ojdanic’s visit was also marked by secrecy and a dearth of information. Reports noted that the Yugoslav defense minister’s arrival in the Russian capital coincided with Vladimir Putin’s inauguration day, and sources reported that Ojdanic had attended the military parade on May 9 which marked the Russian anniversary of the end of World War II. Beyond that, sources said that Ojdanic had met with Russian military leaders, including Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin–the Russian army’s two highest-ranking officers. Kvashnin, it might be noted, traveled to Brussels for talks with top NATO military commanders on May 10 (see the Monitor, May 15). Although the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo reportedly topped the discussion agenda, Kvashnin apparently made no mention in Brussels of Ojdanic’s presence in the Russian capital.

Meanwhile, reports said that Ojdanic, while in Moscow, had discussed with his Russian counterparts bilateral military cooperation as well as the situation in Kosovo. On the latter subject, sources said that the Russian and Yugoslav generals had expressed a similarity of views. With regard to military-technical cooperation (shorthand for arms dealings), the same “military-diplomatic” sources were quoted as saying that Russia would “work with Yugoslavia… without violating the UN Security Council sanctions on Belgrade.” Russia will reportedly train Yugoslav servicemen and the two sides will engage in military-to-military contacts (Reuters, May 14; Russian agencies, May 15).

Like the close ties that Moscow has maintained with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (another indicted war criminal), Ojdanic’s visit to the Russian capital underscored anew Moscow’s disregard for official UN condemnations of Belgrade. What remains unclear is the extent to which Moscow will be willing to act on these views. Under former President Boris Yeltsin, Moscow talked loudly about Serbian-Russian friendship, but never delivered the sort of tangible support sought by authorities in Belgrade. Whether that policy will change under Putin may become clearer this week. Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic arrived in Moscow yesterday for two days of talks with Russian leaders. He is scheduled to meet today with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Reports have suggested that among the topics to be discussed by the two men is a possible visit by Putin to Belgrade (UPI, Russian agencies, May 15). Whether the Kremlin is willing to go that far remains to be seen, but any concrete move by Moscow to boost ties with Belgrade is likely to weaken Western efforts to isolate Milosevic and could further complicate the already troubled Kosovo peacekeeping mission.