Kosovo incursion baffles allies

Show of strength, `tweaking' among possible motives

June 12, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Kathy Lally | Mark Matthews and Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Russia's sudden and supposedly brief entry into Kosovo last night alarmed and baffled Western capitals. The White House, after urgently reaching Moscow for an explanation, tried to put the best face on the sudden crisis.

Upon hearing Russia's foreign minister call the entry a mistake, the Clinton administration decided to take him at his word.

"As Foreign Minister [Igor] Ivanov has said, it was an unfortunate mistake, and the Russian troops will be withdrawn immediately," said Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman. "We're pleased that they've agreed to rectify the situation."

Before the Russian movement into Kosovo, the White House had been assured that no Russian troops would go in before NATO's own peacekeeping troops.

The incident capped a bizarre day in which Russian soldiers abruptly left their peacekeeping posts in Bosnia and rolled through Serbia toward the Kosovo border.

Strobe Talbott, the deputy U.S. secretary of state, had left Moscow for Brussels, Belgium, about noon yesterday, Moscow time, suspending the talks over how Russia would fit into the 50,000-troop peacekeeping force authorized by the United Nations on Thursday.

An hour and a half into the air, he was informed that Russian soldiers had entered Serbia. Fearing that the Russian move could "potentially be a disaster," he ordered the U.S. government plane to turn around, heading straight back for the Russian Foreign Ministry, where talks lasted late into the evening without apparent resolution.

"If their intention was to say, `We're going in before you to have a de facto sector,' that's very worrying," a NATO diplomat said earlier yesterday after the Russian troops reached the Kosovo border. Whatever the reason, "it messed us up; we look a bit silly," he said.

The diplomat offered a benign explanation: "Maybe they wanted to tweak us a little," he said. Another explanation was that the entry of Russian forces into Kosovo might have been the work of a rogue low-level Russian commander.

But the implications for Balkan peace were nevertheless serious, since the Russian troops had abandoned a post in Bosnia that was at least theoretically under an American commander.

If the Russians had hopes of increasing their leverage in negotiations to gain an important role in Kosovo peacekeeping, the movements yesterday may have been counterproductive because they made the West suspicious of Moscow's motives.

A pool reporter with British forces said paratroopers and Gurkha riflemen -- soldiers from the mountains of Nepal who serve in the British army -- who had expected to be securing a highway just inside Kosovo, were told to prepare for a possible landing at Pristina airport to protect the airfield against a landing of Russian aircraft. Later, the special force's alert was called off.

Talbott's mid-air turnaround was reminiscent of the prelude to the war, when Yevgeny M. Primakov, until recently the Russian prime minister, was en route to Washington and turned his plane around when informed that NATO was about to start bombing Serbia.

In Moscow, diplomatic sources said it appeared that the troop movement caught the Foreign Ministry by surprise, and that it had been arranged by the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin.

Though the West has lavishly praised Russia and envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin for helping to negotiate peace, Moscow has perceived only humiliation. The Defense Ministry and numerous politicians have argued that Russia has been weakened and even threatened by NATO action so close to its borders and taken against a fellow Slavic nation. The prospect of a purely ceremonial role in the peacekeeping force may have been more than they could accept.

"They did it because military headquarters realized quite well that Russia would not be invited into the peacekeeping forces in a proper way," said Alexander Zhilin, a journalist who covers the military. "They wanted to demonstrate Russia's influence and significance."

Russia had been demanding a sector of its own to police, and it wanted an area where it could stand guard over Serbs remaining in Kosovo. The Russian military has also refused to consider answering to the NATO command.

NATO has resisted offering a sector to Russia, saying that could effectively partition Kosovo because Kosovar Albanians would not consider themselves safe in a region controlled only by Russians and would never return there. And it has insisted that all troops must serve in one command structure.

"We will not beg, give us this little piece," Gen. Leonid Ivashov, part of the team negotiating Russia's status in Kosovo, said. "If this agreement is not reached we shall announce a sector that will be agreed upon with the Yugoslav side and will meet our interests."

The unexpected troop movement was made known in Moscowabout 2: 30 p.m. (7.30 a.m. EDT) in a bulletin from the Interfax news agency. About two hours later, the Kremlin press office appeared confused and taken aback by the news when asked who gave the order.

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