One-upping NATO reason to celebrate in joyous Moscow

`Provoked' Russians ask few questions about troops being the first in Kosovo

June 13, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- There was champagne all around in the Kremlin yesterday, and though the official occasion was their Independence Day, Russians were clearly jubilant that their band of 200 paratroopers had stolen into Kosovo first, embarrassing mighty NATO and seizing important political ground.

While the rest of the world was asking who ordered the troops in, wondering why the foreign minister appeared unaware of the order and trying to figure out just who was in charge of Russia, few hard questions were being publicly asked amid the general satisfaction here.

'Our Serb brothers'

"It is very important," said Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader who normally bitterly criticizes the Kremlin, "that we have not left our Serb brothers face-to-face with the NATO military machine."

If the drama won raves from military leaders and politicians who had been deeply angered by a NATO war so close to the Russian border and humiliated by the West's nonchalance toward that anger, it also reminded everyone that Russia remains a chaotically governed country with a huge capacity for disruption.

"The alarm today in Western capitals is fully justified," Vladimir Averchev, a liberal member of parliament, said in a lonely display of dissent, "because it is not clear who is making decisions in Moscow."

President Boris N. Yeltsin, while otherwise silent on who ordered what, made his approval clear when he promoted Viktor Zavarzin to colonel general, recognizing him for getting Russian troops into Kosovo first.

Over the course of the day, details began to emerge that suggested Yeltsin had authorized troops to go in but left the timetable to the generals, who outmaneuvered the diplomats and raced in the same as their predecessors a generation ago did in Germany at the end of World War II, making sure they staked a claim to territory and influence.

Russian news agencies quoting unnamed sources also reported that Russia was provoked by NATO, accusing the alliance of trying to drag out talks over the Russian role until it was too late for Russia to take on any substantive part of the peacekeeping effort.

"As far as the presence of the Russian contingent in Kosovo is concerned, there are instructions from the president," Sergei Prikhodko, Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff, said at a briefing yesterday. "The responsibility for their fulfillment and timing depends on the military."

Guerrilla theater

Russia's display of guerrilla theater began Friday while Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, was in Moscow negotiating Russia's place among the 50,000 peacekeepers authorized for Kosovo.

NATO insisted on a unified command. Russia wanted its own sector and did not want its troops taking orders from NATO commanders. NATO was resisting a Russian sector, saying that Kosovar Albanians would fear living there, thus turning it into a partitioned, Serb territory. The talks broke off and Talbott left Moscow at noon, flying to Brussels.

As he took off, 200 Russians paratroopers along with assorted armored personnel carriers and trucks were rolling out of Bosnia, where they had been part of a peacekeeping force. They entered Serbia unbeknownst to NATO.

Presidential and defense ministry spokesmen initially denied the troops were on the move. A few hours later, they said the troops would go only as far as the Kosovo border, preparing for a subsequent contingent of peacekeepers.

Talbott's plane turned around, and talks continued through the night without resolution.

In the early hours of yesterday, the troops entered Kosovo and took up a position near the airport at the regional capital of Pristina. Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, assured the United States that the entry into Kosovo was a mistake and that the troops had been ordered to leave. An American spokesman said the United States accepted that explanation.

But the Russian troops in Kosovo didn't leave and yesterday the military began discussing sending more soldiers.

Provoked into action

Yesterday afternoon, Russian news agencies began quoting unidentified Russian sources saying that NATO had provoked Russia into sending the troops into Kosovo. Various sources accused Talbott of dragging out the talks to keep Russia out of Kosovo until NATO was firmly installed, the news agencies said.

The sources said when it became clear that NATO troops were going to arrive in Kosovo earlier than Russia had been told they would arrive, the Russian military decided it had no choice but to order its troops in immediately.

The negotiations are expected to resume today in Moscow and consultations are under way between Russian and NATO commanders in Kosovo.

NATO spokesmen, putting the best face on the faceoff, kept insisting that Russians were more than welcome in Kosovo.

If they had won nothing else, Russians had gotten the world's attention and even a little deference, if not respect. They enjoyed it immensely.

As the Itar-Tass news agency chortled in one dispatch, "The arrival of Russian peacemakers came as a complete surprise to the American leadership. Even President Bill Clinton learned about this from television reports."

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