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Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Published at 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: Russia in the Balkans

Russian troops are seen as ensuring Serbian sovereignty

By Jonathan Eyal

Although the stand-off at Pristina airport is continuing, both Nato and Russia are trying to avoid a direct confrontation. But, almost regardless of how their dispute is resolved, it is clear that the fight for control over the Balkans is just beginning.

Kosovo: Special Report
From the start of the operation, Western governments knew that they were likely to encounter stiff Russian opposition.

Nato's calculation was that this could be overcome: faced with an accomplished fact, Moscow may huff and puff but, especially since the Russians remain in dire need of Western financial assistance, not much else was likely to happen.

Until now, the West's assumptions were vindicated. Apart from a brief moment when President Boris Yeltsin referred to the possibility of a "Third World War", the Russians have understood that their best chance to influence events in the Balkans is by co-operating, rather than confronting the alliance.

The snag was that the Kremlin wanted to wrest some compromises on issues which Nato governments saw no room for manoeuvre.

Slippery negotiations

Away from the media's limelight, therefore, a complicated diplomatic pirouette developed. The rules of the game were rather simple.

[ image:  ]
At every stage, the West made a compromise on paper, got the Russians to agree on a common position, and then startled Moscow immediately thereafter by maintaining that Russia simply caved in to Nato's demands.

The alliance's war aims were unacceptable to President Yeltsin. They were watered down into a joint communiqué from the foreign ministers of the G8 most industrialised countries and, the moment Russia accepted them, the communiqué was presented in the West as nothing more than enshrining Nato's original position.

Russia's objections on the international force which will police Kosovo received a similar treatment. First Nato insisted that it should be the only provider of troops in the province.

The alliance then relented by accepting that the Russians and other nations also had a role to play, provided the force was to be commanded by Nato.

[ image: Chernomyrdin: Negotiations criticised]
Chernomyrdin: Negotiations criticised
After long discussions the principle was accepted that Nato would provide the "core" of the Kosovo operation under a unified command, but operating within the framework of a United Nations resolution.

Yet the Security Council resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which authorises enforcement measures in the Balkans.

Nato quickly interpreted this resolution as a blank cheque allowing the alliance not only the sole command of the force, but also the ability to change the mandate at will, by imposing particular conditions on the Yugoslav military's withdrawal and threatening to resume air strikes if these are not met.

Russia's interest in Kosovo

Nato's negotiating tactic was initially successful. However, the alliance has clearly underestimated Moscow's determination to influence Balkan events.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian special negotiator for the region and a former prime minister, was bitterly criticised at home for giving in to Western demands. He defended himself by suggesting that, what Russia had failed to obtain formally, it could still get in practice.

[ image:  ]
The various fudges and double-talk contained in almost any diplomatic document signed over the last week only encouraged Moscow in this belief.

By far the most important Russian interest is to secure a specific patch of Kosovo's territory. As far as Moscow is concerned, the creation of a Russian sector in the province offers two strategic advantages.

First, it would mean a Russian military command, which could work alongside that of Nato's, but not be answerable to the alliance.

The Russians will therefore be treated as equals, rather than a mere appendix to the alliance operation.

Furthermore, once a Russian sector is created, the option of granting independence to Kosovo without Moscow's approval is precluded; the Russians are therefore guaranteed a say in whatever happens on the ground in the future.

Nato's plan

For Nato, however, the creation of a Russian sector will be a disaster. Even if Moscow is co-operative, Albanians would refuse to return to the any area controlled by Russian troops, but ethnic Serbs in the province may well seek refuge there.

[ image: Leaving: Serbs see Russia as their only security]
Leaving: Serbs see Russia as their only security
The result could be a de facto partition of Kosovo, precisely what every Western government pledged to avoid.

But, since nobody wanted to refuse the Russian demand directly, Nato resorted to its traditional subterfuge.

Immediately after the UN Security Council resolution was adopted, the alliance announced that it was dividing the province into sectors (or areas of operations), all commanded by its key member states.

The Russians were offered the option of joining any one of these sectors, but on Nato's terms and without the ability of controlling any particular region.

In retrospect, it is now clear that Nato's tactic was misconceived. By publishing a map of its deployments before consulting the Russians, the alliance hoped to present Moscow with an accomplished fact. For Moscow, however, this was the last straw.

So, what appeared only a week ago as a great triumph in East-West co-operation, swiftly turned into an military stand-off of the kind so familiar in Berlin during the days of the Cold War.

A compromise will no doubt be found. Despite their surprise move through Yugoslav territory to Kosovo the Russians do not have the necessary resources to occupy a zone of the province while risking attacks from the KLA, the Albanians' guerrilla organisation.

But the Kremlin is determined to be heard this time, and to dictate the terms of its participation. The difficulty for Nato is that any deal concluded now will be interpreted either as a climbdown for the alliance, or as a humiliation of Russia.

Tough lessons for Nato

And, in the future, the lesson of the confrontation will be remembered in the Kremlin.

The episode has strengthened the hand of those who argue that the West only respects a Russia which is powerful, or at least one which can create mischief.

In a neat move and at little cost, the Russians have established their stake for a sphere of influence in the Balkans. They have also made sure that, even if Milosevic is replaced by a more pro-Western ruler in Belgrade, no Yugoslav president will be able to ignore Moscow, for it will only be the Russian troops which will guarantee an enduring Yugoslav presence in Kosovo.

And the lesson for the West is also unmistakable. Despite all the talk about a post-Cold War co-operation with Moscow, Russia still sees the world in very different terms.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

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