Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 129

Russia and NATO reportedly reached agreement yesterday on the conditions under which Russian troops are to serve in the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo. But the deal, hammered out in Moscow, came only after another sharp confrontation between the two sides. In a move which reportedly left senior Russian military commanders “stunned,” the Western alliance earlier this past weekend blocked a series of flights which were to bring Russian troops to Kosovo. NATO’s move reflected the alliance’s deepening suspicions about Moscow’s intentions in Kosovo. It also suggested that, yesterday’s agreement notwithstanding, relations between NATO peacekeepers and the Russian contingent in Kosovo are likely to remain tense.

The weekend’s developments followed the failure of last week’s talks in Belgium between NATO and Russian military representatives. Intended merely to flesh out and finalize agreements reached in Helsinki on June 18, NATO officials had not expected last week’s talks to be difficult. Reports of the negotiations, however, suggested that the Russian representatives were trying to renegotiate several key points agreed upon in Helsinki. In particular, the Russian delegation was said to be seeking both more autonomy for the Russian contingent in Kosovo and an expansion of its area of operations into the Italian-controlled sector of the province. According to a Russian report, the latter effort was directed at consolidating the Russian presence in Kosovo, with the goal of creating a single Russian-controlled zone (Radio Mayak, July 4). The Western alliance opposes the creation of such a zone–believing it could lead to a partition of the province–and in Helsinki had seemingly won Moscow’s agreement to spread its troops across the German, U.S. and French sectors.

Coming in the wake of Moscow’s unexpected June 12 march into Kosovo and the military exercises conducted by Russia last month (see below), NATO leaders apparently decided after last week’s failed talks that they did not need another Russian surprise. On July 2 both Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger contacted their Russian counterparts to inform them that NATO opposed the dispatch of additional Russian troops to Kosovo until all the details of the Russian mission there were worked out. To enforce the decision, NATO prevailed on the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to deny air corridors across their territories to Russian military transport planes. Moscow had been preparing, with much fanfare, to fly more paratroopers to Kosovo over the weekend, where they would join up with the approximately 750 troops already at the airport near Pristina.

Russian diplomats and military officials were said to have been angered by the NATO action, and Defense Ministry sources were quoted as calling it a deliberate “provocation.” Russian military sources denied that there had been any serious differences between the NATO and Russian negotiators during last week’s talks in Brussels, and suggested that they had no inkling NATO was considering blocking the troop transports. They accused NATO of using the failed talks as a pretext to stop the Russian deployment (Western and Russian agencies, July 2-5; New York Times, July 3; Washington Post, July 5).

At least one Russian source wondered why the Russian military leadership appeared unaware of NATO’s decision to block the troop transports until July 4, even though Russia’s diplomats had been informed of the decision two days earlier (Radio Mayak, July 4). NATO’s decision to stop the Russian flights may have been a bit of payback for the surprise dash of Russian paratroopers to Kosovo on June 12. That move left the Western alliance deeply embarrassed. So too, the failure of Russia’s diplomats to inform the Defense Ministry of NATO’s decision, if that is indeed what happened, may also have been meant to even the score with Russia’s increasingly boastful generals. The Russian Foreign Ministry was not told of the military’s decision to launch the June 12 move into Pristina, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was left to explain to the West why he had been so misinformed about the deployment.

In any event, few details were immediately available of the agreement reached yesterday by NATO and Russia. It was also not clear whether Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania would get an immediate OK to authorize the Russian flights to Kosovo (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, July 5). Even last week, unexplained delays in dispatching additional Russian troops to Kosovo had been something of an embarrassment for Russian military leaders. A further postponement of flights would only deepen that embarrassment. In the meantime, however, the Russian Defense Ministry is reported to have sent 144 Russian servicemen and thirteen armored personnel carriers from Tula to the Black Sea port of Tuapse, from which they will depart for Kosovo by sea. On July 10 another group of soldiers–this one from the North Caucasus Military District–will leave for the Balkans, also by sea, from the port at Novorossiisk (AP, July 4).