First as tragedy, then as farce

Russia engages NATO in a game of chicken, threatening to send its own troops to Kosovo.


Laura Rozen
June 11, 1999 2:00PM (UTC)

The chill of Cold War geopolitics blew through the Balkans Friday, as some 200 Russian troops stationed as peacekeepers in Bosnia crossed over the Drina River in a convoy of armored personnel carriers flying the Russian flag and headed, to the shock of NATO allies, toward the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and then south toward Kosovo. Meanwhile, NATO peacekeepers on an hour's standby to enter Kosovo from Macedonia got a series of conflicting signals from their own commanders, about whether their entrance into Kosovo would be accelerated by the arrival of Russian troops, or delayed, in order to avoid a confrontation with them.

While recalling competition between the Allies for postwar Berlin and the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the turn of events in Yugoslavia Friday had more of a whiff of "Hogan's Heroes" than the Cold War. Indeed, the words of Karl Marx prove prophetic, that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.

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Video footage of the Russian troops showed them stopped at a Belgrade tollbooth, peeking out of the hatches of their armored personnel carriers, which had been carefully stenciled and freshly painted with the white "KFOR" insignia indicating the new Kosovo peacekeeping force, to cover over the "SFOR" which had signaled participation in the NATO-led Bosnia stabilization force.

The independent Serbian news agency Beta reported that the Russian convoy consisted of 50 vehicles and as many as 1,000 Russian soldiers, and was escorted by a Yugoslav police car, indicating the Yugoslav government was aware of the Russian move into Serbia. Serbia considers Russia its main ally.

Leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army weren't laughing. They threatened to attack the Russians if they moved into Kosovo as anything other than part of a peacekeeping force under NATO command.

"I know for sure the Russians have never experienced Vietnam, but they do know what it is to be in Afghanistan," warned KLA spokesman Pleurat Sejdiu by telephone from London. "They will experience another Afghanistan if they go into Kosovo this way. They are not welcome if they are not under the joint command of NATO forces and the U.N. when they go into Kosova."

Sejdiu added that he had information that paramilitary forces loyal to hard-line Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj were moving into the Russian-controlled sector of northeastern Bosnia, mixing in with the Russian troops, and moving with the Russians back into Serbia.

The Russians' surprise move into Yugoslavia had Western diplomats and NATO commanders scrambling for negotiations and more information.

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"Right now we are still trying to figure out what the Russians are doing," said NATO spokesman Maj. Trey Cate, in Skopje Friday. "We want to figure out what their intentions are before we say anything."

Still, Cate remained optimistic that this hurdle would soon be cleared. "We're not worried about it. It will be solved at a political level," he said. "The Russians have to decide if they want to play ball with us [NATO]. The first NATO units will leave for Kosovo at 5 in the morning [Saturday]."

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U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in Macedonia to meet with some of the 7,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to Kosovo when she heard the news. She reportedly ordered her deputy, Strobe Talbott, who had left Moscow for NATO headquarters in Brussels, to reroute his plane back to Russia for more talks with Russian military leaders on their participation in the international peacekeeping force for Kosovo. While the U.S. and NATO allies want Russian peacekeepers to serve under NATO command in Kosovo, Moscow insists its troops should not take orders from its old Cold War enemy.

Moscow initially denied reports that its troops had entered Yugoslavia, then changed its story, saying the Russians -- like the Americans, British, Italians, French and Germans -- deserve to control their own sector in Kosovo. The British 11,000 is the largest contingent of NATO peacekeepers. They are to control central Kosovo, including the provincial capital, Pristina; the French are to control the north; the Germans the southwest; the Italians the west; and the Americans the southeast, bordering both Serbia proper and Macedonia. The 50,000-strong KFOR force is to serve under a British commander, Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson.

The Russians would like to be in charge of northern Kosovo, which has a higher concentration of Serbs, and is home to some of Serbia's most sacred medieval Orthodox monasteries, lucrative coal mines and other minerals.

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But Western officials fear that putting a Kosovo sector under Russian control would lead to de facto partitioning of the province, a la post-World War II Berlin, because the Russians are considered so sympathetic to the Serbs. Another key concern is that putting a section of Kosovo under Russian control would discourage the return of some of the 860,000 Kosovo Albanians who have been expelled from the province by Serbian forces, because the Kosovo Albanians consider the Russians "proxies" for the Serbs.

Russian Kosovo envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, who played a key role in getting Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to agree to the international peace plan for Kosovo, has consistently said he does not plan to serve as a mere "postman" between the NATO alliance and Serbia. But until today, the NATO allies have been able to finesse the lingering disagreements between Moscow and the alliance, including getting the Russians to approve a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday that calls for Serbian troops to withdraw from Kosovo and an international peacekeeping force to take over.

While glitches in the international role in Kosovo came to the fore Friday, the Serbian pullout, which began Thursday morning, appeared to be moving along according to plan Friday, with some 4,000 of the 40,000 Serbian troops in the province reported to have retreated. Journalists in the province say some Serbian civilians appeared to be leaving the province with the steady stream of Serbian military vehicles, in cars packed with all of their belongings.

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It was not entirely clear why NATO troops, which have been assembling for weeks in the region, did not enter Kosovo Friday in the wake of the Serbian pullout. Various reports say the French, who sponsored the failed Rambouillet peace talks in February, were vying with the British to be the first NATO country to move into the province. Other sources said the delay was due to the fact that NATO had not been able to assemble as many forces in Macedonia as it wanted before it entered in a dramatic convoy into Kosovo.

Sources close to KFOR say the first NATO troops will probably move into Kosovo early Saturday morning, led by British forces. KFOR commander Jackson is due to give a press conference in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, Saturday evening, after the first large-scale NATO contingents deploy to the province. The first large contingent of U.S. troops is due to move into Kosovo Monday.


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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