Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 13

Russian President Vladimir Putin has transferred Lieutenant-General Valery Yevnevich from the post of commander of Russian troops in Moldova to that of deputy commander in chief of Russia’s ground forces, responsible for peacekeeping operations. In his new post, Yevnevich will oversee Russian troop contingents in Moldova, the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian theaters, Tajikistan, as well as the Russian element in the international operation in Bosnia.

The change is a corollary of Putin’s decision last year to relieve Russia’s airborne forces of the responsibility for “peacekeeping” operations and entrust that responsibility to the ground forces. Those forces’ commander in chief, Colonel-General Nikolai Kormiltsev, is also deputy defense minister. On January 16 Kormiltsev announced Yevnevich’s appointment to the new post, listing among his qualifications “experience in carrying out peacekeeping operations, dealing with international organizations both public and military, and working with the local population.”

Yevnevich had commanded the Russian troops in the eastern part of Moldova since 1995, when he replaced Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Lebed. The Russian troops dwindled from approximately 8,000 to the current 2,500 during Yevnevich’s unusually long tenure. In contrast to the intensely politicized and often insubordinate Lebed, Yevnevich avoided all political involvement and carried out his orders strictly. From 1995 to 2001 he played his part in Russia’s stonewalling of the obligations–assumed long before the 1999 international agreements–to withdraw its forces from Moldova. When Moscow decided in 2001 to withdraw and/or scrap the combat hardware in compliance with the 1999 agreements, Yevnevich carried out Moscow’s new orders with the same determination he had displayed during the years of stonewalling. By the same token, he switched gears in his relations with Western representatives, growing fully cooperative.

Like Lebed, Yevnevich ended up clashing with the Transdniester leadership. It was a measure of the protection which they enjoyed in Moscow that Transdniester’s leaders prevailed over Lebed and secured his recall. Likewise, it is a measure of the decline in that protection that Yevnevich was able to ride roughshod over the Tiraspol leaders when they tried to block the removal or scrapping of the combat hardware in the autumn of 2001. Igor Smirnov and his team publicly denounced Yevnevich as a “barbarian” for destroying Russian weaponry under the terms of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.

The new commander in Tiraspol of the “Operational Group of Russian Forces” is Major-General Boris Sergeev, hitherto the Group’s chief of staff under Yevnevich. It is a matter of concern that this force has now been included, if only on paper, among Russia’s “peacekeeping” forces under Yevnevich in Moscow. The Russian troops in Moldova never had the status of peacekeeping troops. They always were within the structures and chains of command of Russia’s ground forces. In recent years they were subordinated to the Moscow military district.

For years, Moldova resisted Russian proposals to bestow such a status on those troops. More recently, the proposals took the form of a plan to create a nominally international contingent for “guaranteeing” something–whether the current “stability” or an eventual political settlement of the Transdniester problem. Within that plan, the nominally international contingent would be predominantly Russian in its composition, under Russian operational command, adding token elements from Ukraine and from one non-CIS, neutral or nonaligned country acceptable to Moscow, blessed by an international mandate, and financed through “international”–read Western–moneys.

Under the decisions, adopted in 1999 at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia must withdraw allthe troops from Moldova by December 2002. The decision now to include these troops within the structure of Russia’s “peacekeeping” forces adds to the preexisting indications that Moscow will try to retain some 1,500 troops in Moldova under that label, hoping thereby to elude its assumed obligations.

On January 11, the Kremlin-run website quoted the chief of staff of the Moscow military district, Colonel-General Nikolai Makarov, as stating that the 2,500 Russian troops in Transdniester operate as “peacekeepers”–a misstatement that may well reflect a policy goal. Makarov did cite the 1999 OSCE decisions which require the withdrawal of those troops by the end of the current year. But Moscow has time and again demonstrated how it can circumvent such obligations by relabeling the troops.

Abkhazia is the latest scene of such a demonstration. There, Russia was obligated under the same 1999 decisions to close down the Gudauta base by July 2001. That base, though located in Abkhazia was never part of the Russian “peacekeeping” operation in the region, but was run directly from Moscow. To avoid the internationally mandated closure last year, Moscow unilaterally affixed a “peacekeeping” label on the base. It removed some of the combat hardware and troops, but retained some armaments and troops, along with the base itself. With the OSCE–that is, the West–keeping an embarrassed silence ever since, Moscow may feel emboldened for a repeat performance in Moldova.

Semantics can also come in handy. Once it had made the decision to flout obligations and retain Gudauta, Russia’s Defense Ministry declared repeatedly in the course of several months in mid-2001 that Gudauta was being, or had already been, “liquidated.” As it turned out, only the mission of the airborne unit stationed there was being wound down. But the base itself has been retained, albeit with fewer troops.

A misleading use of semantics was seen also in 1999 in Tajikistan. Russia’s 201st motor-rifle division there did, at least until 1999, have “peacekeeping” status. In that year, a series of official statements in Moscow suddenly announced the “termination” or “liquidation” of the peacekeeping operation in Tajikistan. Only after a while did it emerge that merely the label was changing, as the division shed the “peacekeeping” title. Russia and Tajikistan signed a treaty, under which the division was granted basing rights. At Russia’s initiative, the CIS went through the motions of ending the “peacekeeping” mission of this Russian unit.

Now, however, this same Russian division stationed in Tajikistan has been included in the structure of “peacekeeping” forces under Yevnevich, along with the troops in Transdniester which never had that status. The Kremlin probably hopes for a deal with Moldova’s communist president, Vladimir Voronin, to confer a peacekeeping or “guarantor” title on the Russian troops (Flux, Basapress, Infotag, January 14-17; Izvestia, January 16; Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, January 15;, January 11; see the Monitor, November 21, 26, 28, December 12, 13, 19, 2001, January 14).