MOSCOW — THE Russian government has vigorously denied a British newspaper report that the Russian Army and intelligence service signed a secret arms agreement with leaders of the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav state last month.
"It is completely absurd," Vladimir Ivanovsky, head of the Yugoslav section of the Russian Foreign Ministry, told the Monitor.
Russia has supported all the United Nations sanctions against former Yugoslavia aimed at bringing an end to the fighting between Serbs and other nationalities in the republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Russian government is currently playing a key role, along with the US, in promoting the Bosnian peace talks.
But Russia's leaders have also come under heavy domestic pressure to take an independent stance and to shift support toward Serbia. Russians share a common religion, culture, and linguistic heritage with their fellow Slavs in Serbia, and have long maintained historical links.
The Russian parliament overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution recently, calling for sanctions against Yugoslavia to be partially lifted and for sanctions to be imposed on Croatia, which it blamed for renewed Serb-Croat fighting.
The Feb. 28 report in London's Observer newspaper claimed the Russians had agreed to sell $360 million worth of arms, including tanks and sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles. It said Russian soldiers and technicians had already been sent to operate the missile batteries in an area of Croat-Serb fighting.
"How can contracts be concluded for such an amount and, moreover, how can one expect to deliver the tanks mentioned, for example, unnoticed?" asked Mr. Ivanovsky, the Foreign Ministry official, responding to the charges.
"It is difficult to count on the reliability of such information," says Vladimir Beketov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, saying his ministry and the intelligence service do not conduct negotiations to sell arms. Such sales are negotiated under the authority of the Ministry of External Economic Relations and only on the basis of a political decision by the Russian leadership, he explains.
Mr. Beketov suggests the Observer's report may be linked to the recent visit to Serbia of retired Gen. Viktor Filatov, a well known Russian nationalist. Appearing in uniform, General Filatov reportedly claimed to be able to organize 100,000 Russian mercenaries to aid the Serbian cause.
There are already plentiful reports of Russian mercenaries and volunteers being involved on the Serbian side. Up to 500 Russian volunteers are currently fighting with Serb forces in Bosnia, the Moscow News magazine reported last week. Six have been killed since the volunteers began to arrive in the summer of 1992.
"I am protecting the interests of Russia here," volunteer Ivan Chernikov told Moscow News.
"From the military point of view, our role is insignificant and symbolic.... But Serbs found themselves totally isolated from the world community, which denounced them for their just struggle. We have arrived to render them fraternal assistance," he adds.
The problem of mercenaries is a significant one for Russia, Prosecutor-General Valentin Stepankov said in a television interview Feb. 28. His office has submitted a draft law punishing the recruitment, arming, financing, training, and use of mercenaries.