Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Keen to Keep the Peace: A Force for Bosnia

RYAZAN, Central Russia -- The soldiers in Barracks No. 1 of the Ryazan Airborne Division were about to leave their homeland for a dangerous peacekeeping mission in war-ravaged Bosnia -- and they could hardly wait.

"I've dreamed about this for a long, long time," said Alexei, 19, a sergeant whose round, gray eyes shone with excitement as he and his comrades spent their last night on Russian soil Thursday. "I like hot spots, and I want to learn how to fight."

Alexei, who, like his comrades, declined to give his surname, was one of 100 Russian soldiers who joined the 400 Russian peacekeeping troops already in Sarajevo on Friday. Another 200 will join them in April.

Unlike many of the thousands of soldiers from 21 other countries who serve in the United Nations force in Bosnia and other hot spots of former Yugoslavia, Alexei had another reason for wanting to join the 400 Russian peacekeeping troops already stationed around Sarajevo.

"The pay is good," he said as he mended a torn seam in his padded camouflage jacket. "And there's nothing to do at home."

With a monthly salary of about $700, the 1,300 Russian troops in the former Yugoslavia get less than a quarter of what many Western peacekeeping troops receive.

But $700 is still 10 times what they would earn for serving in Russia, and over 100 times what they received as recruits.

Just after completing his obligatory 18-month stint in the army, Alexei signed on for six additional months. Like most of the soldiers of the Ryazan airborne division questioned, he said he would stay in Bosnia for up to the maximum of 18 months if he is asked. The reason -- to save as much money as possible.

With few prospects for civilian jobs in their hometowns and low morale in the impoverished military bases inside Russia, young members of the elite airborne troops compete fiercely for the privilege of risking their lives in Bosnia.

Yevgeny and Ruslan, both 19, also made it through the rigorous selection process, but they will have to wait a few more weeks before they can join the largest contingent of 800 Russian peacekeepers located in Croatia. Instead of packing their luggage, they spent the evening serving sloppy mashed potatoes and fried fish in the officers' mess.

"It's very prestigious to serve for the United Nations," said Yevgeny, an oil factory worker who grew up in Tomsk. Like Alexei, he hopes to use the money he will make to get him started in civilian life.

For Ruslan, the mission will be special for a different reason. He is one of the 15 Moslems added to the force to ease suspicions among Bosnian Moslems that the Russian troops favor the Bosnian Serbs, their traditional allies.

Moslem leaders in Bosnia have objected to the presence of Russian troops, fearful that Russian peacekeepers will fail to prevent Serb forces from redeploying artillery that was pulled back from Sarajevo last month as part of a UN-negotiated cease-fire agreement.

The Bosnian Serbs, similarly, have objected to the deployment of 1,000 Turkish troops, predominantly Moslems, in the region.

"We do not hide our sympathy for the Serbs," said Nikolai Stashkov, deputy commander of Russia's airborne troops.

"But we take a strong position that, first and foremost, we are fulfilling a peacekeeping mission and that we should be objective in our actions," he added.

To avoid accusations of bias, Stashkov said, the soldiers have been instructed not to fraternize with the Serbian civilians who live in the districts patrolled by the Russian peacekeepers.

In another gesture symbolic of the Russian contingent's ecumenical make-up, the troops were blessed by both a Russian Orthodox Priest and a Moslem religious leader before departing for Bosnia.