The column of Russian soldiers that made a surprise dash into Kosovo Friday night exposed a gaping chasm between Russia's military and its foreign policy establishment over Yugoslavia, Russian officials and Western diplomats here said today.
"There were clearly sharp divisions inside the Russian government about what was going on and who was calling the shots," a Western diplomat said of the confusion surrounding the nighttime foray into Pristina, the capital of the Serbian province.
"None of this looks very good for the Russian government," he added. "This is not the kind of behavior you expect out of a world power that wants to be taken seriously for peacekeeping."
Top Clinton administration officials scrambled to contain the damage done to relations between Washington and Moscow by the deployment and to figure out a way to focus stalled negotiations here on how to incorporate the Russian troops into the NATO peacekeeping force for Kosovo.
Earlier today, President Boris Yeltsin endorsed the deployment amid continuing questions about who had originally approved it.
Sergei Prikhodko, a deputy Kremlin staff chief for foreign policy, issued a statement for Yeltsin saying the deployment was "part of the first phase" of Russian peacekeeping participation, and that Yeltsin had signed the proper papers.
But according to several accounts, the foray into Pristina was inspired by restive generals who feared they were being left out of the peacekeeping operations, even as the negotiations on a formal Russian role dragged on here. The decision to send the troops into Kosovo stunned Russia's top diplomats and the rest of the government.
And it revealed a division that has been festering since the allies began air attacks against Yugoslavia in March, especially in recent weeks as a negotiated settlement with Belgrade was reached with help from Russia.
On one side, Russia's hard-line military leaders, especially Gen. Leonid Ivashov, who is in charge of Russia's overseas commitments, have been deeply distrustful of NATO and resentful of its use of armed force against Yugoslavia. On the other side, Russia has played a key mediation role through the efforts of former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has voiced his view that Russia's economic fate is tied to its ability to act as an intermediary. The hawks have accused Chernomyrdin of selling out Yugoslavia, but Yeltsin has stood fast behind the deal while trying to avoid the domestic political backlash.
The Kosovo foray by the approximately 200 Russian troops, who had driven across Yugoslavia during the day from Bosnia, where they were stationed as peacekeepers, was a complete surprise from the military because it broke promises made to the United States by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov just hours earlier. Then, Ivanov said publicly in a pre-dawn phone call to CNN that the troops had been ordered to leave. The White House seized on his reassurances.
But Ivanov subsequently was ignored here. The withdrawal order never came. In effect, the Kremlin ditched Ivanov's promise and put a seal of approval on the military's gambit. Chernomyrdin was also left out out of the decision and said he knew nothing of the deployment.
Russian accounts today suggested the military leadership had concluded late Friday that negotiations with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on a Russian peacekeeping role were going nowhere. Although Talbott had turned his plane around earlier in the day and returned to Moscow for more talks -- which proceeded through the night -- the military reportedly decided that if it waited, it might never get a place in the peacekeeping map taking shape on the ground.
The allies had not carved out a separate Russian zone, and insisted that Russian troops must be subordinate to NATO command. Both circumstances grated on the Russian military.
What is not clear is exactly why the decision to move into Kosovo was triggered; two of the Russian military leaders most responsible, Ivashov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, were involved in the talks here with Talbott. Two other military officials who reportedly were key in the decision were Gen. Viktor Zavarzin, the former Russian envoy to NATO who is with the troops in Pristina, and Gen. Yevgeny Barmyantsev, the Russian military attache to Belgrade.
The Russian news agency Tass said that Yeltsin had promoted Zavarzin today from lieutenant general to colonel general. Russian television also pointed to Russia's chief of the general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, as probably having issued the actual orders.
Military sources were quoted by Russian news agencies as expressing frustration over the talks with Talbott. "The impression was created that the generals from the Pentagon were deliberately dragging out the dialogue" on the peacekeeping zones, one military expert told Tass. And Interfax news agency quoted military officials as saying that they believed NATO was misleading them about the plans for putting Western forces into Kosovo. "Yet again, NATO has tried to present Russia with a fait accompli," one official said.
Ivanov had no further comment today; Talbott said the talks would continue on Sunday. However, after Talbott left today's meetings, the news agency Interfax quoted a Russian negotiator as complaining that Talbott had taken a "sticky, unproductive position." A U.S. official said that while "reasonable progress" had been made, it was possible that Talbott would leave Moscow Sunday without a resolution.
President Clinton, speaking at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to members of the Illinois Air National Guard, said, "We are working now with the Russians to assure that we can work together with the unified command structure as we did in Bosnia." Clinton planned to talk to Yeltsin by phone Sunday.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spoke with Ivanov, who reiterated that the deployment was made without his knowledge or approval, according to a senior U.S. official. A State Department spokesman said Albright's view was "that we have to move beyond this and make arrangements both for the small contingent and the potential of a larger Russian force to be integrated into the larger KFOR," the Kosovo peacekeeping force.
At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said it was a mistake for the Russian troops to move into Pristina prematurely and indicated that the United States still does not know how it happened. But he said it was unlikely the Russians did so to upstage NATO.
"It may have been simply overanxiousness on the part of military commanders. It may have been some confusion in terms of what the direction was," Cohen said. "There's no particular glory in arriving in Pristina with 200 troops."
Asked if Yeltsin gave the order, Cohen replied: "All I can judge by is his public statements that he authorized the military to move when it was, in their judgment, the right time to move." He said the Pentagon asks U.S. military advisers to make similar judgments. "Whether it's a mistake on the part of the lower level commanders or the higher levels, we can't say at this point."
Staff writers Steven Mufson and John F. Harris in Washington and William Claiborne in Chicago contributed to this report.
CAPTION: President Boris Yeltsin, center, reviews the developments that led to the rapid deployment of Russian troops to Kosovo, with, clockwise from right, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Yeltsin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin.
CAPTION: Russian soldier rests on armored vehicle at Pristina airport after entry into Kosovo.