Russia's Game

The 200 or so Russian troops who in effect seized the Pristina airport are a political, not a military, problem. The real worry is what the incident says about the Russian government mind-set and decisionmaking in the Kremlin.

When the Russian troops were first sent in, Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov assured Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that they had been ordered in by mistake and would be withdrawn.

They not only dug in - the Russian troops took a belligerent stance toward their fellow KFOR peacekeeping troops from Britain and France, with whom they are supposed to be working. Instead they cooperated with Serb soldiers at the airport.

Mr. Ivanov was either stretching the truth, or he was out of the loop in Moscow, or the military chiefs were freelancing beyond the civilians' instructions. Neither of the last two scenarios is particularly reassuring. Both leave Western policymakers to wonder if they are dealing with the right Kremlin office.

Then there's the question of Rus-sian strategic and diplomatic thinking. At the least, the Russians understand that ground forces can create "facts" negotiators must deal with. It increasingly appears that Moscow concluded the only way it could gain any leverage in negotiations over Russian participation in KFOR was to send in troops to grab an important chunk of territory - in this case, the airport in Kosovo's capital city.

The Russians know they have few diplomatic and economic cards to play in global affairs. They apparently see armed force as the only way to get serious consideration. That's a dangerous perception the West will have to address. It must reassure the Russians that no one is writing them off, while at the same time refusing to reward Moscow for disruptive behavior.

Western leaders must hold firm on Russian participation in peacekeeping only under a unified KFOR command ultimately reporting to NATO. While welcoming Russia's contribution, the allies must avoid creating a Russian sector that could attract large numbers of Serbs and repel Kosovar Albanians - leading to a de facto partition of Kosovo. That doesn't mean Russian troops can't operate discretely within another nation's sector.

And Moscow should understand that its partners would have more confidence in its good faith if it didn't resort to these kinds of games.

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