Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 114

s historic peace mission in Kosovo got off to a tumultuous start this weekend when some 200 Russian troops unexpectedly raced into the war-torn province ahead of the alliance’s peacekeeping forces. The move by the Russian paratroopers, who have based themselves at the airport in Pristina, appeared to stun not only Western leaders and alliance military officials, but Russian diplomats as well. Indeed, while the unexpected action complicated the deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo, it was perhaps even more worrisome for what it suggested about the functioning of the Russian government. Observers in the West were quick to speculate that the move had been ordered by those hardline military leaders in Moscow who have objected most strenuously to NATO’s operations in the Balkans. They also pointed to Yeltsin’s weakening grip on power and the increasingly erratic performance of Russia’s fractured political system. There were suggestions, finally, that the Russian deployment reflected direct collusion between some elements of the Russian government and authorities in Belgrade.

Western leaders and NATO officials, however, went out of their way over the weekend to downplay the import of the incident. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested that the dispute was simply about timing–the Russians had gotten “a little bit ahead of themselves,” she said–while supreme NATO commander General Wesley Clark claimed that the Russian deployment was having no impact whatsoever on the alliance’s own move into Kosovo. British Defense Secretary George Robertson ascribed the arrival of the Russian troops to a “mix-up,” rather than to any “malice” on Moscow’s part. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who spoke by telephone yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, said that the 200 Russian soldiers would be absorbed into NATO’s Kosovo force, though he did not say how or when. Ivanov gave assurances to the West that no additional Russian troops would be sent to Kosovo without prior agreement (International Herald Tribune, June 14; AP, Reuters, June 13).

That the two sides were still having difficulties yesterday resolving their differences over how Russia might best participate in the Kosovo peace force was evident, however, by the fact that Russian-U.S. talks in Moscow dragged on for yet another day without result. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who had returned hurriedly to Moscow following word of the Russian troop movement, did suggest that the two sides had narrowed their differences somewhat. Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov said much the same thing. Talbott’s and Ivanov’s talks, moreover, were followed by a telephone conversation between the Russian and U.S. presidents during which they resolved to put the issue in the hands of Russian and U.S. military negotiators. Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton also planned to speak again by telephone today and reiterated their intention to hold joint consultations on Kosovo during the G-7 summit scheduled for the end of this week, but apparently produced no formula for a breakthrough (International and Russian agencies, June 13).