COL. Yuri Levchenko's previous foreign assignment was fighting Muslim guerrillas as an officer of the former Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan. Last week, he was sent to help keep peace in Yugoslavia.
"It was a surprise," admits Colonel Levchenko, the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force's Russian Army unit, the first ever provided by Moscow for such an operation.
Speaking at a Yugoslav Army base in the Belgrade industrial suburb of Pancevo, Levchenko says he was given only three-days' notice of his new assignment.
"It is rather difficult to carry out an evaluation now. We have had only one day and one night here," Levchenko says.
With political pressure forcing an urgent pace to the operation, Levchenko and an advance unit of his contingent are to depart today for Croatia's eastern Slavonia region, one of the most fiercely contested areas of the Serb-Croat civil war.
They are part of a multinational advance contingent charged with determining the precise locations in which the 14,000 troops and police of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) are to be deployed. Because the 450-member reconnaissance contingent had only a few days warning of their mission, they had little time to learn the complex background of the savage conflict that has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives.
"We do not know much about it," concedes Col. D.N. Aryal, the commander of a unit of Gurkhas of the Royal Nepalese Army. "We had very short notice."
A day before the contingent's departure for Croatia, the UNPROFOR commander, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar of the Indian Army sought to ready its members for their hazardous duty.
"Your task will require a great deal of tact, understanding, and patience," he told the troops assembled yesterday on the wind-swept parade ground of the Pancevo base.
"We must not only be fair and impartial, but we must be seen to be fair and impartial," he said.
He reiterated that the operation was aimed at cementing a Jan. 3 truce between Croatian and Serbian forces to permit a European Community-brokered settlement and a final accord on the breakup of the multiethnic, six-republic Yugoslav federation.
General Nambiar said he was "assured of the maximum possible support" by Serbian and Croatian military and political leaders during five days of talks in Zagreb and Belgrade last week.
"But we must bear in mind that it is not an easy task," he said.
In addition to ensuring the mission's neutrality, he warned contingent members against risking their personal safety, reflecting concerns over possible attacks by extreme Serbian and Croatian irregulars opposed to the peace plan.
The dispatch of the contingent opens a new phase of the peacekeeping operation even though numerous details, including the contingent's budget, have yet to be settled.
The UN Security Council has delayed final approval of the deployment of the bulk of the mission contingent UNPROFOR pending a reduction in the estimated $634 million price tag for its the first 12 months. A final UN Security Council vote is expected around April 1, says UNPROFOR spokesman Fred Eckhart, and it will take about three weeks for the rest of the peacekeeping force to be deployed.
UN commanders and Serbian and Croatian leaders had only touched on other unresolved issues, including the mechanism for demilitarizing the three so-called UN Protection Areas in which the peacekeepers are to be deployed, said Mr. Eckhart.
Also to be worked out is a timetable for the withdrawal from Croatia of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, which together with Communist-ruled Serbia backed minority Serbian rebels in conquering about 35 percent of the republic's territory.
"I think we've got a taste of the gray areas that will have to be clearly defined," Eckhart said.