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Saturday, June 19, 1999 Published at 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK

Yeltsin and his generals

Russia's move into Pristina took Mr Yeltsin's government by surprise

By Moscow Correspondent Andrew Harding

Last Saturday morning Boris Yeltsin woke up in one of his many presidential residences in the forests west of Moscow.

Kosovo: Special Report
It was a gorgeous summer day, and tens of thousands of Muscovites were already heading out to their country cottages and gardens.

In a few hours time the Russian leader would be heading back into town in his black Mercedes for a special party in the Kremlin.

Saturday was Constitution day in Russia - a time for Mr Yeltsin and his friends to celebrate a document which gives the president sweeping, and virtually unchecked powers over the world's largest country.

But that morning, a big question mark was hanging over Mr Yeltsin's authority, and indeed the whole chain of command in this nuclear superpower.

Army's secret plan

Late the night before, the president had received an unexpected telephone call from his military chief of staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin.

[ image: Russian troops headed for a bizarre confrontation with Nato]
Russian troops headed for a bizarre confrontation with Nato
The general had some urgent news. A column with about 200 Russian troops was at that moment preparing to enter Kosovo.

The army had drawn up a secret plan to get its men into the regional capital, Pristina before Nato soldiers arrived the next morning. There was no time to lose. Mr Yeltsin's approval was needed immediately.

That, at least, is a version of events that has since been leaked to the press.

Kremlinology has never been an exact science, and it could be that the call never happened. Perhaps Mr Yeltsin was only informed later. Perhaps he was not asked for a decision, but given an ultimatum.

In the dark

What is certain is that virtually no one in the entire Russian government knew what was going on.

The Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin was apparently kept in the dark. The Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, definitely knew nothing. The same goes for Mr Yeltsin's special Balkan envoy, Victor Chernomyrdin. Even the defence minister, Victor Sergeyev, may have been out of the loop.

Later that evening, with or without President Yeltsin's blessing, the Russian troops set off, abandoning their peacekeeping duties in Bosnia and driving through the night towards an unprecedented and bizarre military confrontation with Nato.

According to one report, the convoy broke off all radio contacts to make sure no one could abort their mission.

The operation had been planned carefully in advance. A senior Russian general, Viktor Zavarzin had already been flown in specially to lead the column.

Generals' fait accompli

Secrecy was vital. The generals who'd plotted it all knew that if some of Mr Yeltsin's more moderate aides got to hear of it, they would almost certainly make sure the president got cold feet.

[ image: Russia's General Ivashov had threatened to bypass Nato and send in troops]
Russia's General Ivashov had threatened to bypass Nato and send in troops
So instead they presented the Kremlin with what amounted to a fait accompli. And early on Saturday morning, the troops entered Kosovo, catching Nato and the Russian Government completely off guard.

For the generals back in Moscow, it was a moment to savour. A rare moment for men who were still struggling to come to terms with the collapse of the mighty Soviet army.

Over the last few weeks they'd been getting steadily more furious with what they saw as Russia's capitulation to Nato, and betrayal of Moscow's old ally Belgrade.

During the peace negotiations, violent and quite public rows had erupted between the Kremlin's chief negotiator, Victor Chernomyrdin, and the Russian military representative, Leonid Ivashov.

The generals felt Nato had forgotten that Russia was still a nuclear power, and that the Kremlin was allowing itself to be sidelined and humiliated by the west.

By the time Boris Yeltsin arrived in the Kremlin for his party later on Saturday, all that had changed.

Nato upstaged

By winning the race to enter Kosovo, and seizing control of a key airport there, the army had salvaged some of its own dignity, and pushed Russian diplomats out of the shadows and back onto centre stage.

At the party, Mr Yeltsin made no mention of the events of the night before. But, when it became clear that the general's plan had worked, triumphantly, he quickly issued an order promoting the man who'd actually led the troops into Pristina.

Lieutenant General Victor Zavarzin became colonel general - and a national hero.

Right across the board, Russian politicians hailed the move. Nato had been upstaged. Denied its bright, shining victory. That would teach Bill Clinton to think he could act like the world's policeman.

Mr Yeltsin's baffled ministers quickly fell into line.

The foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, swallowed his pride, and chose not to resign, despite the fact that he'd gone on television straight after the troops went in saying it was all a mistake and that they would be withdrawn immediately.

The prime minister was left to mutter something about co-ordinating policy better in the future.

And that, it seemed, was to be the end of the matter. A simple case of misunderstanding. A little administrative confusion. All governments squabble. Perhaps Russia's just does it in a more extreme, and public manner than most.

But there is clearly more to it than that.

Crossing the line

Russia's generals have set a precedent - they've shown that they're now prepared to bypass the government, and meddle directly in international politics.

I'm not suggesting that the next step is a military coup. But an important line has been crossed, and as Boris Yeltsin himself warned a few weeks ago, trouble in the Balkans can quickly lead to instability in Russia.

A final thought. I remember sitting in Grozny in December 1994, listening to President Yeltsin on the radio swearing blind that his airforce wasn't bombing the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and then looking up to see another Russian MiG fly overhead and attack the nearby airport.

Was the Russian president lying, or did he simply not know what his own country's armed forces were up to? Neither alternative seemed particularly encouraging at the time. I'm not sure how much has changed since then.

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