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Russia's Perilous Game

July 07, 1999

NATO and Russia have struck a deal to put up to 3,600 Russian troops into parts of Kosovo, but the accord leaves disputes over issues of command unsettled and concerns over Moscow's political intentions unresolved. Rather than removing barriers to cooperation in trying to keep the peace in Kosovo, the deal holds the prospect of new frictions, if not actual confrontation.

It has been clear ever since the Russians caught NATO embarrassingly off guard by seizing the airport at Pristina last month that Moscow intends to play its own game in Kosovo, using its own rules. Nominally its forces will be there to support peacekeeping operations under U.N. auspices and NATO's command. But Moscow's greater commitment is to serve as the advocate for Yugoslavia and the Serbs, with whom Russia has long historic and religious ties.

For example, the deal with NATO allows Russian forces to refuse to carry out orders from the NATO commanders in the German-, American- and French-administered zones where they will be stationed. Moscow has already indicated that it won't enforce the mandate of the war crimes tribunal at The Hague to arrest persons accused of murder and other crimes against humanity in Kosovo. NATO has reserved the right to send its own forces into Russian areas of operation if Russian forces reject NATO's orders, but the Western alliance made amply clear during its air war against Yugoslavia that it is institutionally averse to risk. There is a real question whether it would be prepared to send its ground forces into Russian-controlled areas in the face of possible armed resistance.

Russia's seizure of the Pristina airport was seen by some as an effort to display military prowess after Moscow's humiliation over its inability to prevent NATO's bombing of Serbia. But mounting evidence suggests that Russia seeks more than just respect for its military. It also wants to show--most of all to the Russian people--that it remains a political force. That could well mean asserting, when it can, its differences with NATO and its independence of action--to the possible detriment of peacekeeping operations.

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