THE 700 rawboned Russian paratroopers stamping fiercely across a frozen parade ground here last week were hardly seasoned diplomats.
But their performance in the icy mud of Bosnia-Herzegovina in coming months will do as much for Russia's new relationship with the West as any subtle negotiations in Europe's chancelleries.
Russia's parliament voted Friday to send up to 1,600 troops to enforce Bosnia's peace as part of the NATO-led international force.
The men here seemed unfazed about working - and possibly fighting - on the same side as their former foes. "I think the Americans will like us, and we are going to get straight A's," said Maj. Alexei Ogorodnik, a mustachioed veteran of the Russian Army's war in rebel Chechnya.
Some 1,500 Russian troops are due to be in position in northern Bosnia by Feb. 1, according to Col. Gen. Leonty Shevtsov, who will be overseeing the Russian side of the operation from NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Stationed alongside the US 1st Armored Division, the Russians will man joint checkpoints with US soldiers and mount patrols in the sensitive Posavina corridor, which joins Serbia proper to Serb-held lands in western Bosnia. They will help ensure that Serb and Bosnian government forces stay at least 1.2 miles from each other.
The fig leaf
Lengthy negotiations preceded Moscow's decision to join the operation - the largest that the Western alliance has ever mounted. Russian President Boris Yeltsin only gave his approval once a formula had been found that allows the Russian soldiers to participate without being under NATO command, which would have been unacceptably humiliating.
Officially, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. George Joulwan, will be acting in his capacity as an American general when he gives orders to his Russian deputy, General Shevtsov. This technically means that the Russians do not report to NATO. Orders to the Russian brigade are meant to be issued only by Shevtsov. Also, a "16 + 1 consultative committee" has been set up, comprising all NATO members plus Russia, to give Moscow a voice in the political control of the operation.
Such diplomatic niceties, however, are irrelevant to the men on the ground in Sector Eagle, which will be under the command of US Gen. William Nash. Russian brigade commander Col. Alexander Lentsov was blunt when asked how he would relate to General Nash. "If he is standing next to me, he will just tell me what he wants me to do," he said.
"Militarily it is nonsense to have a brigade in your sector that you cannot command," added another Russian officer who requested anonymity.
But Moscow needed just a fig leaf of supposed political and military independence in order to join the peacekeeping force, given its anxiety not to be left out of the solution to Europe's worst conflict since World War II.
"It is not NATO that needs our participation but Russia," argued Shevtsov on Friday, as he urged the upper house of parliament to approve Russia's deployment. "Almost every other European country is taking part."
"This could be the foundation of a new European system of collective security," echoed Deputy Foreign Minister Nicolai Afanasyevsky. "Too much is at stake for us not to help solve this problem."
If the Russian brigade is little more than a token contribution - making up less than 2 percent of the total international force - that is only because of a lack of cash. "At first the figure of 8,000 [men] or even 10,000 had been discussed," said Gen. Yevgeny Podkolzin, commander of Russia's paratroopers. "But due to economic difficulties the size of the Russian contingent was severely cut."
As it is, the year-long operation will cost Moscow $42 million it can ill afford, and it is still unclear where that money will come from.
The Russian government's desire to join a new European security architecture is not without its critics here, who contend that Moscow is kowtowing to its former enemies.
"Russian forces under NATO command will be taking part in the occupation of Bosnia to defend US geopolitical interests," fumed Yuri Lodkin, one of only two parliament members to vote against the deployment. "Today is the celebration of the United States' and NATO's victory over Russia."
Trusting and verifying
The operation calls for unprecedented cooperation between NATO and Russian troops. "We have done maneuvers with American soldiers, but this is a more serious stage," said Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Khalilov, deputy commander of Russian airborne forces. "Let's see how we get on."
So far, "there has been total openness and trust, and complete mutual understanding," according to Colonel Lentsov, who last month visited the area where he will be deploying his men and met his US counterparts.
But if such hopeful signs are evident among the soldiers on the ground, the broader diplomatic horizon remains clouded.
Only last week, in another warning against NATO expanding toward Russia's western flank, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev threatened that NATO expansion would mean "we will have to review our approach to the role and place of tactical nuclear weapons, and revise our commitments under military agreements."