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  • Pristina Gambit Reveals Split in Russian Military

    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Saturday, June 19, 1999; Page A15

    MOSCOW, June 18 The Russian race to Kosovo a week ago in which 200 paratroops dashed to the Pristina airport to become a major irritant to the West has also cast new light on what well informed officials describe as a deepening split at the top of the Russian military.

    According to several accounts, President Boris Yeltsin approved the nighttime foray in a telephone call with Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the General Staff. But, they said, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev was notified only later of the deployment go-ahead, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was left in the cold. Ivanov wrongly reassured the United States that the troops would not enter Kosovo.

    Sergeyev's absence from the direct line of decision-making has underscored what military and civilian officials describe as a rift between the defense minister, a former rocket forces chief, and his top generals. The differences have been simmering for months, but the Pristina gambit brought them into the open.

    A major underlying reason for the split, military officials said, is the plan Sergeyev launched last year to create a new "unified command" over land, sea and air-based nuclear weapons. The plan, which Yeltsin initialed, calls for establishing an expensive and complex new command structure for Russia's nuclear forces, which are at the heart of its military might at a time when its conventional forces are in deep trouble.

    Sergeyev's plan has run into resistance from Kvashnin and the General Staff, who historically have held a key role in the nuclear weapons chain of command.

    Sergeyev, 61, to whom Yeltsin gave the rank of marshal, has made it clear that the head of the new nuclear forces command would be Vladimir Yakovlev, his protege and successor in the rocket forces. This has further riled the General Staff, officials said.

    Mark Galeotti, a professor at England's Keele University, who has frequently researched and written about the Russian military, said the dispute over the unified command "is a symptom, rather than the cause" of the rift at the top of the military.

    The split is also over personality, he said; Sergeyev is a rocket forces technocrat and has never cottoned to the General Staff's ground forces generals.

    Moreover, he added, the generals fear that if they lose control of nuclear weapons, they also will lose badly needed resources. "The fear is that this new nuclear command would be fully funded, and there would be disproportionate shortfalls in the others," Galeotti said.

    Russian officials said the dash to Pristina was part of a General Staff plan, of which Sergeyev may well have been aware, and which Yeltsin was informed of in a document on June 10, the day before it occurred.

    "I don't think we can interpret this as maverick generals," said Galeotti. "They went to Yeltsin for his approval. They wouldn't have gone ahead without his approval."

    But when the time came to implement the plan, Sergeyev was left out. "The generals started their own game," said a well informed military source here.

    The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta said that once Yeltsin approved the plan, a signal was sent to the peacekeepers in Bosnia under Gen. Viktor Zavarzin, who had been Russia's military envoy to NATO since October 1997. It was also sent to Russia's military attache in Belgrade, Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Barmyantsev.

    The newspaper said the plan used "misinformation" to deceive the West as well as Ivanov so there would be no attempt to block the troops.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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