Russia and the United States appeared to move closer today to settling their differences on a location for Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo, and Russian military leaders claimed the progress in negotiations was due to the surprise rush of Russian troops into the Serbian province.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott completed another round of talks with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, which was followed by an hour-long phone call between President Boris Yeltsin and President Clinton in which they discussed Kosovo peacekeeping arrangements. They agreed to talk again Monday and to meet next week in Germany.
Before entering his final meeting this morning, Talbott told reporters that the United States might agree to give the Russians a "zone of responsibility" in Kosovo. Under the agreement that ended NATO's 11-week war on Yugoslavia, Kosovo was divided into five sectors to be controlled by U.S., British, French, German and Italian troops, and the Russians have been demanding one of their own.
"There will be parts of Kosovo where Russian participation will be important and manifest," Talbott told reporters, but he stopped short of saying there would be a separate Russian area. There also were no signs of progress on the sticky issue of command and control of peacekeepers. NATO has insisted on a unified command of the operation; Russia has refused to put its troops under NATO command.
Talbott, referring to the Russians' surprise dash into Pristina early Saturday morning, said Russia once again promised not to deploy further troops until there is an agreement. "I don't expect any more surprise steps from the Russian side," Talbott said. Russia has another 1,000 paratroops at three airports ready to join peacekeeping operations.
The possibility of a compromise over the Russian peacekeeping role was swiftly hailed by military chiefs here as a dividend from the foray into Kosovo by approximately 200 troops, which stunned NATO. The troops, while not a large contingent, are holding the Pristina airport.
A high-ranking General Staff officer told Interfax news agency today that "the actions of the battalion created conditions for more constructive negotiations" with Talbott.
But once the troops went into Kosovo and set up at the Pristina airport -- breaking promises to the West by Ivanov that they would not enter Kosovo before NATO -- the dynamic of the talks changed, he said. "After the dash, the situation at the talks became simpler."
Sergei Prikhodko, Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff for foreign policy, told reporters that "definite progress" was made in the talks.
In Washington, administration spokesman David Leavy called Yeltsin's and Clinton's talk today "quite constructive." He said that "in addition to the political discussion being held by Deputy Secretary Talbott, the two leaders agree that the military-to-military channel was the appropriate forum to work out the details of Russia's participation in KFOR," the Kosovo peacekeeping force.
Asked if Clinton asked Yeltsin to explain Friday night's unexpected dash to Pristina, Leavy said: "Clearly there is political confusion in Moscow." He declined to elaborate.
One administration official said Yeltsin suggested he wasn't directly responsible for the foray. The official said Yeltsin told Clinton that "it was up to the [Russian] generals to decide the timing" of their entry into Kosovo.
In Skopje, Macedonia, NATO`s supreme commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, called the Russian move "bizarre" but said it was not hindering the alliance, the Reuters news agency reported. "This is a political problem at this point . . . and I think it needs to have time to be addressed and resolved in political chambers," he said.
Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to meet next Sunday in Cologne, Germany, during the meeting of the Group of Seven industrial democracies plus Russia.
Staff writer Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.