NATO and Russian negotiators agreed today on how to deploy Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo, defusing a diplomatic standoff that over the weekend prompted NATO to block the flight of Russian troops to the battered Serbian province.
The accord, coming after 11 hours of talks here, opened the way for swift deployment of a Russian Kosovo contingent of 3,600 troops within a NATO-led force that eventually will total more than 50,000. It also appears to mark resumption of cooperation between Moscow and NATO in the region following last month's unexpected occupation by 200 Russian troops of the airport in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, which was to have served as NATO peacekeeping headquarters.
NATO considers Russian participation in the peacekeeping mission an important means of reassuring Kosovo's shrinking Serbian minority that it will be secure in the midst of hundreds of thousands of returning ethnic Albanian refugees who were driven from their homes by Serb-led Yugoslav forces during the 2 1/2-month Kosovo war.
The latest dispute over the Russian peacekeepers demonstrated a new level of mistrust of Russia by NATO leaders and a determination by the alliance to nail down details of Russia's role in Kosovo before allowing it to send more troops to the Pristina airport.
Late last week, NATO called on Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to deny Russian military planes an air corridor to Kosovo on grounds that Moscow was trying to change the terms of a peacekeeping agreement already reached at Helsinki by seeking to gain more autonomy for Russian commanders in the province. Russian military officials responded that NATO's blockage of overflight rights was a provocation, and they threatened to send reinforcements to Kosovo by train if necessary.
NATO officials said Russia won no concessions today on where its troops will be stationed and to whom they will report. "This is pretty much what we thought it would be from Helsinki," said one NATO officer.
The Russian troops will be scattered in noncontiguous sectors under U.S., French and German command, as previously agreed, NATO officials said. Russian military leaders had hoped to deploy their units next to each other, but NATO objected, saying that this would give Russia a de facto sector of its own and potentially too much independence.
On the other hand, each link in the chain of command will include a Russian liaison officer--16 in all--enabling Moscow to say its troops do not report directly to NATO. In addition, Russian soldiers may refuse to carry out NATO-ordered tasks if they conflict with orders from Moscow; for instance, the Russians are known to object to using military force to apprehend war crimes suspects in Kosovo. "They will have to follow their own national laws and national policies," Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, told the Associated Press at his headquarters in Mons, Belgium.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov described the lingering issues that prompted today's talks as technical and relatively minor, but NATO's insistence that everything be worked out beforehand illustrated the degree to which Russia's actions have strained its credibility in Western capitals over the past month.
First, Russia dispatched troops to take over the airport in Pristina without NATO's consent or knowledge. Then it sent two strategic bombers on an exercise within theoretical striking distance of the United States. Finally, after agreeing in Helsinki to disperse their troops in three sectors of Kosovo, Russian negotiators insisted on putting some into the Italian-controlled sector, a move that would link Russian troops in the French, German and Italian zones.
"The Russians aren't playing straight with us," one NATO official said today. "They are playing games." The Russian newspaper Vremya suggested that NATO now will double-check Russia's every move. "Jitters are now the order of the day," the newspaper said, and it predicted a new "chilly" war between the old Cold War rivals "on the level of small, dirty tricks."
NATO wanted "to show us who is boss," said Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament. "They are showing us that the affair starts but does not end at the [Pristina] airport, that there are many airports in various countries and these countries behave obediently."
Besides patrolling part of the U.S., German and French sectors, Russia will have 750 troops stationed near Pristina airport. A Russian will command the airfield, but NATO will control air operations, NATO officials said.
Staff writer Dan Morgan in Washington contributed to this report.