Moscow's tough act likely to backfire

The dash of 200 Russian soldiers to the Pristina airport over the June 12 weekend wasn't a rogue military operation, but an audacious move to enhance Russia's profile in the Kosovo peacekeeping force. President Boris Yeltsin authorized the action, although, Russian officials maintain, he left the timing up to the military.

The tactic could work in the short term, but over time it's likely to backfire.

The outlines of a deal are apparent and could be developed when US Secretary of Defense William Cohen sits down with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki this week. Russia will get a "zone of responsibility," although not a separate sector, to patrol, and the Russian commander will not be formally under NATO command. That could allow the Kremlin to depict Russia's role as worthy of a major power. In any event, the G-7 leaders and Mr. Yeltsin are going to work hard to cut a deal June 18-20 in Cologne, Germany, that will at least temporarily defuse the confrontation.

That's the good news.

The bad news is what this episode says about the state of Russian decisionmaking and politics. Disorderly, confused, unreliable, and worrisome are adjectives that come to mind.

The problems begin with Mr. Yeltsin, never a hands-on leader comfortable with institutionalized decisionmaking. He has preferred to rely on a small group of informal advisers, a broad set of contacts, and finely honed intuition. It was never a good way to run the government, but it worked as long as he was healthy and politically active.

But Yeltsin's failing health has limited his contacts, narrowed his sources of information, and made decisionmaking increasingly a function of access to him. This precludes proper vetting of even critical decisions and allows people with access to advance their own agendas.

It should be astounding - but it is not - that the prime minister, foreign minister, Federal Security Service director, and Yeltsin's own special envoy to the Balkans were left out of the loop on the Kosovo deployment. Military leaders simply got to Yeltsin first with a plan, couched in terms of protecting Russia's strategic interests, that could be set in motion before civilian leaders could object.

Moreover, Yeltsin's own domestic political needs make him more attentive to military wishes. Because of his physical frailty, his abysmal approval rating of about 2 percent, and an intensifying political struggle, Yeltsin sees control of the military and security services as critical to his own position, as he has during past crises. That concern is reinforced by his immediate entourage, known as "the Family" because it includes his daughter and her close associates, who depend on Yeltsin's power for political, and in some cases physical, survival.

If, as many observers in Moscow now fear, the Kremlin is considering extra-constitutional steps to extend Yeltsin's term beyond its constitutionally mandated end next summer, or to ensure the election of a loyal successor, it will need the military to stay neutral. Letting the military have its way on Kosovo was an easy way for Yeltsin to shore up his position with it.

Yeltsin, however, still has much to do before he can feel confident about the military, which has felt humiliated by Russia's role in the Kosovo crisis. After years of slashed budgets, starvation rations, and neglect, the military has no reason to trust Yeltsin. Like the rest of society, most officers would be just as happy to see him go. That doesn't mean that they would actively turn against him on their own or in alliance with other opposition forces. The military doesn't want to be saddled with responsibility for running the country, even if it desperately wants greater resources. It would much rather work the system to obtain those resources, and it hopes to exploit the Kosovo crisis for just that end.

Even though he wants the military's support, Yeltsin realizes he can go only so far. Russia is in no position to entertain a major confrontation with the West, whose money and technology are crucial to its economic recovery. NATO's offer - a "zone of responsibility" and indirect chain of command - may be sufficient to meet Yeltsin's concern about Russian prestige.

The military would find it hard to resist - even if it prefers a sector and independent command that would put it on par with the NATO powers - because it may have backed itself into a corner. The Russians can do little in Pristina with 200 soldiers who could become targets of the Kosovo Liberation Army. But it has no easy way to augment them: Serbia's neighbors - Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria - have consistently refused Moscow overflight permission to fly in reinforcements. As a result, the Kremlin itself could soon face a dilemma: either back down or violate these states' airspace and thereby shatter its efforts to portray itself as a force for international peace and order.

In the end, the Kremlin will likely find its bold move has backfired. It has already raised grave doubts about its reliability and judgment, underscoring disarray at the highest levels. It could further sour Yeltsin's relations with his military, as it highlights the latter's weakness. A move intended to enhance Russia's prestige will ultimately have the opposite effect.

*Thomas Graham is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was a US diplomat in Moscow from 1994 to 1998.

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