Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 86

Viktor Chernomyrdin has to date been much more muted in his criticism of NATO actions in Yugoslavia than have some other key Russian government officials, including Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. But the Russian envoy’s more moderate rhetoric has not obscured the fact that NATO and Russia remain divided on several key points regarding the Kosovo crisis. Russian officials have continued to make it clear that they consider a cessation of the NATO bombing to be a precondition for the start of peace talks. NATO rejects that demand. Moscow has also continued in large part to back Belgrade on the question of what sort of peacekeeping force should be deployed in Kosovo. Milosevic wants an unarmed civilian force under UN control; NATO wants a robust military force with at least a large NATO component.

But Russia and NATO also differ more generally on the precise nature of Moscow’s mediating role. NATO, in essence, wants Moscow to exert influence on Belgrade to persuade Milosevic to accept the Western demands for an end to the air bombardment. Russia, in contrast, insists that it will not be merely a “messenger boy” for the West, but will act instead to move both sides toward a common set of positions. Indeed, Russian officials have boasted already of having moved NATO on several points–including its current acceptance of non-NATO forces in any postsettlement peacekeeping force.

What remains unclear is whether Moscow is actually capable of exerting any influence on Milosevic. Indeed, the Russian government to date has acted in many regards as a “messenger boy” for the Belgrade authorities. Any concessions wrung out of Belgrade, therefore, will likely be the result, not of Moscow’s intervention with Belgrade, but of the NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia. Chernomyrdin’s high profile diplomatic role over the past two weeks has nonetheless helped to quiet the criticism of Yeltsin’s communist and nationalist opposition in Russia. The mediating role NATO offered Russia also provides Moscow with the opportunity to both end its diplomatic isolation and mend some fences with the West. As Clinton’s remarks yesterday suggested, the NATO states are now themselves angling for a diplomatic exit from the Balkans conflict–albeit one on their own terms. A successful Russian mediation effort could provide a face-saving device for Belgrade, Moscow, and, possibly, the West as well.