Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 124

Western intelligence analysts have reportedly reached some new conclusions regarding the circumstances surrounding the June 12 dispatch of Russian paratroopers to Pristina. There has been speculation that the surprise deployment was masterminded by hardline military leaders openly dissatisfied with the Kosovo peace agreement negotiated by Russian special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin. The Kremlin, in turn, did little to dispel parallel rumors that President Boris Yeltsin was not directly involved in giving the actual deployment order which sent Russian paratroopers into Kosovo. Questions have also arisen regarding the goals of the deployment. Was it the first step in a broader plan to establish a much larger Russian military presence in Kosovo–perhaps one which, with the cooperation of the Belgrade leadership itself–might have been aimed at partitioning the war-torn province? Or was it merely a reflexive action authored by churlish Russian generals determined at any cost to rain on NATO’s victory parade into Kosovo?

Remarks by Russian Airborne Forces commander General Georgy Shpak certainly suggest that at least some Russian generals were thinking less of geopolitics than of playing a nasty prank on the Western alliance. In a newspaper interview Shpak said recently that “by being the first to enter the territory of the province [Kosovo], we spoiled NATO’s mood. Thousands of reporters had been sent there to report on the victorious march of Americans, English, Germans and French. Instead, all they saw were our servicemen” (Parlamentskaya gazeta, June 25).

Although Russian public and media opinion appeared in general to be wildly supportive of the dispatch of troops to Kosovo, some commentaries reached conclusions which suggested that the Russian decision to move into Kosovo had been a shortsighted one–even if it had been part of a broader plan. The newspaper “Kommersant,” for example, described the operation as a disaster because, while it had placed a small number of Russian troops in Kosovo, it had failed to solve the problem of supplying them. The newspaper also pointed to what it said was a second part of the Russian plan–the immediate transport of additional troops into Kosovo by plane. But the generals had failed to foresee that Hungary and Bulgaria (under pressure from NATO) might refuse to let the Russian aircraft transit their territories. The Russian paratroopers, the newspaper concluded, had “fallen into a trap,” one which would leave them and the Russian government in a humiliating position (Kommersant, June 15).

According to the “Washington Post,” many Western intelligence analysts now believe that the scenario laid out by “Kommersant” is close to the facts. They say that the sudden dash by Russian troops into Kosovo was indeed part of larger and more complex plan–one aimed deliberately at deceiving the West–which was intended to move 1,000 or more men into the province quickly. The plan was based, they say, on the hope that Russia could get permission from Hungary to send six military transports across its territory on June 11, before it had become clear that Russian troops from Bosnia were on their way to take the airport near Pristina. The Russian effort was reportedly close to success, and was stymied only at the last minute when the United States won Hungary’s agreement to deny Moscow an air corridor. That move frustrated Russia’s military leadership, who now saw no good way to resupply or to reinforce the small contingent at the airport.

What reportedly remains unclear is the precise goal of the failed Russian operation. Was it aimed at seizing a Russian zone in Kosovo, or merely at improving Moscow’s position in negotiations with the West over the Kosovo peacekeeping force? Analysts are also still unsure of the decisionmaking process behind the operation, and whether it might have reflected a split not only between political and military leaders, but also one within the military high command itself. That the latter might be true was reportedly suggested during the June 16-18 negotiations in Helsinki at which the United States and Russia sought to outline a peacekeeping role for Moscow. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen reportedly made little progress in the talks until he was able to separate Defense Minister Igor Sergeev from Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a fellow member of the Russian delegation. Ivashov has been among the military’s most outspoken critics of NATO and of the Kosovo peace deal, and is believed to be a key part of the faction which planned and launched the June 12 deployment of paratroopers to Pristina (Washington Post, June 25).