In the ambiguous Kosovo war, were the Russians winners or losers? We could not say for sure even if we knew which side they were on.

As of this writing, some 200-300 Russian troops have joined with a small Serb contingent to hold a position at the airport near Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, in defiance of NATO plans to which Russia had apparently agreed. The Russian troops moved into Kosovo from Bosnia, traveling in convoy in a 270-degree arc through Serbia in what seems to have been a planned action coordinated with the Serbs. Despite initial denials by the foreign minister, the move seems to have been ordered from the Kremlin.

The Russian motives are easy to guess. They want to establish a role in the Kosovo peacekeeping force that is not part of a NATO command. They may seek control of a sector in northern Kosovo where the Serb population is concentrated. That could provide a haven for the fleeing Serb minority and a base for a Yugoslav claim in the event of any eventual partition.

At home, the television images of flag-waving Russians in combat fatigues riding armored personnel carriers through cheering crowds are a tonic for national depression, and poking a stick in NATO’s eye makes Russians feel like Russians again.

Yet Russia gets credit (perhaps undeserved) for negotiating the agreement that NATO called a victory. Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said that Russia “bears a big, perhaps even a decisive responsibility” for ending the conflict.

But did Russia’s involvement strengthen or weaken NATO’s position? On the one hand, Russia in the final days agreed to a peace plan that requires the withdrawal of all Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and provides for an international security force that is a NATO operation in all but name. Russia’s acceptance of these previously intolerable conditions may have sped Yugoslavia’s agreement to them. On the other hand NATO’s strong desire to keep Russia on board may have had something to do with NATO’s concessions to Yugoslavia, of which two may be mentioned. The June 9 peace accord offers no possibility of self-determination for Kosovo and provides for no peacekeeping presence outside Kosovo. Those are retreats from the February Rambouillet accords, whose acceptance was the original objective of the NATO bombing campaign. Nor does the June 9 agreement force Slobodan Milosevic from office or provide for his arraignment before the War Crimes Tribunal that has indicted him.

Whatever the ambiguities, Strobe Talbott’s embrace was a kiss of death. At least before their forces appeared in control of Pristina airport, Russians widely believed that their government’s support for the NATO peace plan flowed from weakness and corruption, perhaps a deal for Western loans. The Duma in a non-binding resolution called on President Boris Yeltsin to fire special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin for pursuing “a line at variance with Russia’s national interests.” The United States and Russia may still have a tolerable relationship at the governmental level, as White House aide John Podesta insists, but Russian public opinion in every poll has swung decisively against NATO and all its works.