A bitter success for Moscow

Far from celebrating the peace deal for Kosovo, many Russians see it as

The international deal on Kosovo finally agreed to by Yugoslavia may be a victory for peace, but it was a blow to Russia's illusions of post-cold-war grandeur.

Moscow's aim in volunteering to mediate between its Slavic ally, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, and NATO was to prove it was still a weighty world player. Russia wanted to put the brakes on what it saw as Western aggression in its former Central European backyard. And it hoped to bring the United Nations in as supreme arbiter.

But dependent on foreign economic assistance and with its military in ruins, Russia had no choice but to cave in to NATO demands in the deal reached Thursday.

Rather than returning a hero who helped find a way to end the fighting over Kosovo, Balkans mediator Viktor Chernomyrdin limped home to accusations of betrayal. Instead of winning prestige, Russians could no longer deny their nation's inability to stand up to its Western nemeses.

"There is a widespread feeling that we are so weak that we can only capitulate to the West," says Ivan Safranchuk, a foreign-affairs expert at the Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. Adds one high-ranking government official: "This was no diplomatic triumph. We had no mechanism to insist on our vision of the problem. NATO held all the trump cards."

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia has waved its own trump card: the huge nuclear arsenal left over from the cold war. But when the airstrikes began against Yugoslavia in March, dark hints by President Boris Yeltsin of a World War III proved empty threats.

While Russia continued to condemn the bombing, it quickly backed away from a confrontation with the West. It assumed the humble role of messenger, ferrying peace proposals between the two sides.

Moscow insisted on two principles: that the UN command any peacekeeping force in Kosovo and that NATO immediately halt its air campaign. But Mr. Chernomyrdin melted in last week's peace deal, agreeing to allow NATO to form the core of the team and to continue bombing until Yugoslav forces withdraw from Kosovo.

Now sidelined with NATO and Belgrade in direct contact, Russia has little say on any final settlement.

A quid pro quo?

An underlying motivation for Russia's capitulation may have been a desire to appease the West to win desperately needed loans. But diplomats on both sides deny firm promises of money were made to Russia as a quid pro quo. They say the main reason for giving in was that Mr. Milosevic himself had softened.

"The NATO campaign had worn Milosevic down, so for Russia to hold out for something else made no sense politically or militarily," says a Western diplomatic source who declined to be identified. "I've seen no evidence of a direct link with aid."

The Russian government official concurs. "The West promised us nothing; it simply pressed us into a corner. We can't afford to hold parliamentary elections this winter and presidential elections next summer with Serbia dying. The destruction would have exploded our own country."

What probably exploded were Chernomyrdin's presidential aspirations. The pro-Western former prime minister was far from a leading candidate before. Now he is one of the least popular men in Russia.

Some of Chernomyrdin's biggest critics are military members of his negotiating delegation, who publicly expressed their differences with the accord on Kosovo.

Finland gets the credit

In the Western camp, the hero of the day was not Chernomyrdin, but Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who entered as a second mediator late in the game. Russia had argued all along that its special access to Milosevic made it a crucial intermediary without whom a pact could not be reached.

But in some Western eyes, Moscow was too close to its protg and thus played an obstructive role.

By not putting pressure on Milosevic earlier, Russia gave the impression that it would help him out. This, perhaps, led the Yugoslav leader not to take Western threats as seriously as he should.

"If the Russians had not walked away from [talks in the French city of] Rambouillet, Milosevic might have felt under stronger pressure to sign a peace deal," says one Western military source. "Russia did not act constructively."

Working out details

Now that Russia is firmly aboard the Western ship, there is no guarantee that this peace deal will even hold. Details still have to be worked out, such as the chain of command and the number of Russian peacekeepers.

The formula quoted by some diplomats envisages up to 50,000 peackeepers. Britain would contribute 27 percent of the troops and the US, France, and Germany each about 15 percent. Russia's deployment would entail a mere 2,000 to 3,000 men.

Negotiators are now trying to come up with a face-saving model so that Russia can take part in the operation while appearing not to be serving directly under NATO. One formula under discussion is that Russian troops would report through the NATO chain while keeping a direct link to Moscow. Western officials point to Bosnia as a precedent.

A greater possible sticking point would be Russia's insistence on disarming ethnic Albanian rebels with the Kosovo Liberation Army - something the British and Americans say is not realistic.

Whatever is finally worked out is likely to provoke a backlash in domestic politics and affect the outcome of the coming parliamentary and presidential elections. The communist and nationalist opposition is bound to try to capitalize on the government's perceived sell-out over Yugoslavia.

A much more damaging byproduct of the Balkans campaign will be curtailed security cooperation with the West. When the airstrikes began, Russia froze relations with NATO and shelved talks on disarmament.

"Trust will take a long time to rebuild," says the Western military source.

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