Weighing Moscow's gains from Kosovo gambit

Troop deployment soothed Russian pride; could backfire at G-8 talks

Russia's gambit of sending troops to seize the airport in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, before the arrival of NATO forces was a symbolic way to reassert itself on the world stage. But the move could have dangerous implications for Russia-US relations if the standoff continues.

Following the incident, Moscow's demands for a peacekeeping sector in Kosovo are receiving serious attention. Hawkish Russian generals and nationalists feel appeased, after earlier anger at the Kremlin's perceived capitulation to NATO.

But the deployment rattled the West's trust. And this weekend's G-8 summit in Cologne, Germany, of the world's seven richest industrial nations plus Russia will indicate whether President Boris Yeltsin has gained - or lost - by throwing the West off balance.

"The [preemptive march] gives Yeltsin bargaining chips in the G-8 talks. He wanted linkage with financial aid. So he will make concessions and they will present the bill," predicts Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies think tank in Moscow. "But in the long term it was very foolish. Traces of mistrust will be felt for a long while. Yeltsin lost credibility with his Western partners."

There is talk that Mr. Yeltsin may not show up at all. He is sending his latest prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, for advance talks on restructuring Russia's huge foreign debts and winning new loans. But if the signs don't look promising, a Russian newspaper hinted, the Russian leader might cancel his appearance.

For Russia, last week's mad dash to Pristina's airport temporarily soothed wounded pride. For 11 weeks, Moscow had watched impotently while NATO bombed its ally Yugoslavia.

Yeltsin was clearly playing to a domestic audience: the generals and nationalists who have bemoaned Russia's decline since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. On everyone's mind are Yeltsin's single-digit public approval ratings and the coming elections - for parliament in December and for president six months later.

Officially, Western diplomats downplayed the airport incident and insisted the Russian blockade would not hamper NATO's plans in Kosovo. The West has been shaken, however, by lack of clarity over who ordered the march. It was unclear whether there was coordination among military men opposed to the Kosovo peace deal, the Kremlin, and the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov initially reassured US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott that the deployment was a mistake that would be rectified. It later transpired that the decision was condoned at the highest level.

"How do we know with whom we are negotiating?" asked one Western diplomatic source. "Can we believe what they tell us?"

Yeltsin, who has spoken repeatedly by telephone with President Clinton in the past few days, clearly reveled in the fact that he had unsettled world leaders.

"President Clinton phoned me. Imagine that!" Yeltsin said mockingly in televised remarks. "It turns out that I am a good chap, I am a diplomat and lots of other nice things."

Unknown is whether Yeltsin has made his symbolic point and will settle down to cooperate with NATO. Major sticking points include NATO insistence on a unified command - Russia wants the operation to be under United Nations control - and Russia's demand to oversee part of northwestern Kosovo.

This summons up the specter of cold-war Berlin, divided between Western and Russian sectors - hardly a reassuring prospect for harmony. Western officials have countered with an offer for a more vague "zone of responsibility" for Russia.

Some Western military analysts believe the deployment of the 200 paratroops may backfire for Moscow. The small group on the airfield was reportedly feeling "vulnerable" after a rocket-propelled grenade landed on airport grounds June 15, presumably fired by ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters. The group also had to ask British NATO forces for water as it awaited the arrival of a Russian supply convoy.

BUT an underlying fear is that Russia plans to be more assertive in the Balkans as it pushes for the partition of Kosovo to protect its Serbian allies in the province. Mr. Stepashin warned June 15 of the need to disarm "illegal armed formations," a reference to the KLA.

Russia's RIA news agency said 5,000 to 7,000 paratroopers would fly to Pristina within the next few days. Still unclear is what their role would be and how they would interact with the 50,000 NATO troops expected.

Western diplomats say the worst can be avoided if the Russians agree to serve under Finnish, rather than NATO, command in Kosovo. Russian and US defense ministers are to meet in Helsinki this week, and the notion is likely to be brought up.

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