Moscow Set for Kosovo Replay

SLATINA, Serbia -- When Russia tangled with the West over Kosovo nine years ago, it bit off more than it could chew and eventually backed down.

A more confident Russia is now poised for a rematch on behalf of its Serb ally after Kosovo Albanians declare independence on Sunday.

Russia cannot stop independence but has blocked recognition by the United Nations, where it plans a legal challenge. This could help Serbia deprive an independent Kosovo of the Serb-majority enclave in the northern city of Mitrovica.

It may also redress an affront dating back to June 11, 1999.

"We were surprised that day," recalled Milazim Zogiani in his village overlooking Kosovo's main airport near the capital, Pristina. "We didn't expect the Russians. They came suddenly."

Like his fellow Kosovo Albanians, Zogiani was eagerly awaiting the arrival of 45,000 NATO troops as Serb forces began a withdrawal compelled by 78 days of allied bombing to end ethnic cleansing ordered by the late Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.

Instead, he saw a Russian column sweep into the airport, completing a bold dash from Bosnia through Serbia to seize the runway before NATO could get there. They were greeted as heroes by Serbs along the way.

"The main thing was secrecy," said a Russian soldier in the operation, now a senior paratroop officer. "What was a sensation for the world took weeks of thorough preparations for us."

A senior Western diplomat who witnessed events said, "There was a very serious plan to partition Kosovo, and they were going to do it by force majeure," after NATO rejected Moscow's proposal to divide Kosovo into three slices, restricting NATO to the south.

A Russian-held airport was not in the Western script. NATO wondered whether there had been a coup and whether ailing President Boris Yeltsin was aware of the operation. The Foreign Ministry said it knew nothing.

But the Defense Ministry, despite many denials, was going ahead with a plan to bring in up to 10,000 troops, claim a Mitrovica sector and deny NATO overall command.

"Kosovo would be effectively partitioned," NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark wrote in his minute-by-minute record of the crisis. NATO's war would have "achieved almost nothing."

British troops arrived, but the Russians refused to budge, triggering a blizzard of crisis phone calls as NATO generals and leaders disputed the high-risk responses under consideration.

The standoff was dismissed as an annoying sideshow to NATO deployment, but confidential accounts published later show it was anything but.

For three days, new allies Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria kept their airspace closed to Russian overflights. British general Mike Jackson refused to block the runway, telling Clark, "Sir, I'm not starting World War III for you."

In the end, President Bill Clinton won Yeltsin's assurance that Russia would abandon the gambit. They left the airport and fielded a modest contingent, as part of NATO's peace force.

Zogiani recalled how later the Russians traded fuel for food. "Their food was bad. They treated us correctly."

Getting to Kosovo first had been paramount for NATO because it "lacked the legal authority to deny the Russians their call for a sector" under UN Resolution 1244, Clark admitted.

Nine years later, 1244 is still in force, and legal authority is again in dispute. Serbia already controls life in the Mitrovica zone, and the West has few ideas on how to keep it in Kosovo. Serbs there plan to set up a Serbian National Assembly on Friday, citing 1244 to dismiss independence.

NATO and the UN have never established authority in northern Kosovo, the Western diplomat said. "It has always been iffy." The UN "has never been able to assert itself to the point where it could eradicate the parallel Serbian government networks running" in the region, he said.

Since 2007, Russia has mounted a stiff challenge to the West over Kosovo. It has no obvious reason to give up now.

Serbia has already shown gratitude by letting Russia buy its oil monopoly. Nationalists say it should also invite Russia to set up military bases to counter NATO in the Balkans.

Russia, the Western diplomat said, "will try every measure they can" as the ripples of Kosovo's independence spread.

"For these people who believe that Russia is just bluffing, they really ought to go back and look at 1999."