Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 123

Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, meanwhile, took the increasingly standard route in Moscow of attributing Western reports critical of Russian behavior in the Balkans to some sort of Western disinformation campaign. The Russian general has long been a leading critic of NATO and reportedly helped mastermind the recent surprise deployment of some 200 Russian paratroopers to the airport near Pristina. Ivashov suggested yesterday that the reports of Russian mercenaries in Kosovo were aimed at advancing a key NATO goal: to limit Russia’s peacekeeping presence in the province. “No one has been sent to Kosovo by the defense ministry, and our military has taken no part either in combat actions or in the capacity of advisors,” he said (Russian agencies, June 24).

Since the start of NATO’s air campaign against Belgrade there have been frequent calls by Russian nationalists for volunteers to serve with Serb forces in Kosovo. The issue was highlighted in late May when a Russian volunteer–a man who had apparently served earlier with the country’s Emergency Situations Ministry–was killed along with some thirty Serbian soldiers in a battle with Kosovo Albanian guerrillas. A Russian General Staff officer at that time admitted that Russian volunteers might be serving in Kosovo, but he said that the number was small (Itar-Tass, May 21). Western journalists, meanwhile, reported encounters of their own with Russian volunteers in Kosovo (Washington Post, May 21).

The role played by Russian volunteers in Kosovo could yet prove to be a significant one. Even aside from the question of mercenaries, Russia’s obvious sympathy for Belgrade throughout the latest conflict has turned Russian peacekeepers into unwelcome guests among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. These and related issues have also colored the approach of Western leaders to a Russian peacekeeping presence in Kosovo, compelling them to limit Moscow’s role and to spread Russian troops thinly across Kosovo. But direct Russian participation in Belgrade’s ethnic cleaning campaign in Kosovo could have other more direct consequences. If the “Newsday” report proves correct, then Russian volunteers could at some point be implicated in UN war crimes charges brought against Serb forces in Kosovo. That would be certain to re-ignite tensions between Moscow and the West, and might further complicate NATO’s already delicate peacekeeping mission.