President Clinton spent 23 minutes on the phone with Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday, and the two nations' top foreign and military ministers agreed to meet in Finland in high-level efforts to resolve a standoff over Russian participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping force.
Even as U.S. officials tried to play down the impasse, they dropped earlier assertions that it could be resolved among military officers on station in the Balkans. The moves here and in Moscow amounted to acknowledgment by both nations that the entrenchment of 200 Russian soldiers at the airport in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, has raised serious issues concerning Russia's role in the 50,000-strong, NATO-led force taking up positions in Kosovo.
U.S. officials expressed concern that the Russian role, if it leads to a separate zone outside NATO command, could encourage partition of Kosovo, the southernmost province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. They also described the surprise deployment of Russian troops at the airport as a test of Yeltsin's control over his military and said it throws into question Russia's cooperation with Western nations before the Group of Seven summit conference this weekend in Germany, where Russia will seek economic help.
"If the Russian military continues to be obstructionist [in Kosovo], and the G-7 are not wimps," said Ariel Cohen, an analyst for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, "Boris Yeltsin can kiss the credit goodbye."
No officials suggested that the standoff would explode into violence. It is unthinkable for Western troops to fire on Russians, they said, a reality that allows the Russians to block the airport's entrance in the face of British officers with greater firepower.
But the airport impasse may force NATO leaders to give Russia a bigger role in Kosovo's peacekeeping army, dubbed KFOR, than they had planned. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, when asked by reporters if she fears partition, said the Russians understand "that every inch of Kosovo has to be under KFOR," which must have "a unity of command."
"I don't think we need to exaggerate this problem," she told reporters at a White House news conference. "This is something that can be worked out."
Albright said Clinton and Yeltsin made progress in their phone conversation, in part by agreeing that she and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen would meet in a few days in Helsinki with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev.
The planned meeting between the two defense leaders recalls a similar situation in 1995, when it was left to then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry and his Russian counterpart, Pavel Grachev, to work out a way to incorporate Russian troops into the NATO-led peacekeeping force about to enter Bosnia.
U.S. officials had hoped to apply the same model in Kosovo that has held in Bosnia, where Russian forces serve in the American sector but report to a Russian general stationed at NATO's military headquarters in Mons, Belgium. Russian authorities want a more significant status for Kosovo. They have refused to accept a subordinate role under any of the five major NATO powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy -- that will have charge of sectors in Kosovo.
But the United States and its allies are reluctant to give Russia its own sector, determined to avoid even the appearance that Kosovo is being partitioned. Instead, U.S. officials say the alliance is trying to create a "zone of responsibility" for Russian peacekeepers, where Kosovo's returning ethnic Albanians as well as Serbs would be as safe as those in any other sector.
Ideally, such a zone would still be part of one of the planned five sectors under the control of a major NATO power. A fallback option, according to Pentagon officials, would involve an additional sector in which Russian troops would serve under the command of a non-NATO country, possibly Finland.
Such a plan would allow Russia, which has historic and cultural ties to the Serbs and opposed the NATO bombing campaign, to answer to a non-NATO nation. But it would preserve NATO's requirement of a "unified command" structure, since the head of the non-NATO sector still would be taking orders from Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, the British officer leading the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.
Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin presided at a closed session of the Kremlin security council yesterday in Moscow. Officials said Stepashin emphasized the importance of not excluding the Foreign Ministry in the wake of last weekend's embarrassing episode in which Ivanov was not informed of the movement of Russian troops into Kosovo.
Correspondent David Hoffman in Moscow contributed to this report.