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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Eagerly Ship Out for Balkans

IVANOVO AIR FORCE BASE, Central Russia -- Russia dispatched its first peacekeeping force to serve alongside NATO soldiers as an Antonov-22 cargo plane lifted off the runway Thursday carrying 150 paratroopers and a bellyful of equipment.


The massive turboprop was the first of nine aircraft due to leave over a two-day period from this northern air base, the point of departure for the advance force for about 1,600 soldiers being dispatched to the Balkans.


As motivational music composed by paratroopers during the Afghan War blared in the background, the first soldiers took to the tarmac and loaded up their gear.


"I think that with a joint peacekeeping force and a large-scale operation like this, there will be peace in the Balkans," said Major General Nikolai Staskov, deputy commander of the paratroopers who will be stationed in Bosnia.


This is the first time Russian soldiers will be serving side-by-side with NATO troops in a multinational peacekeeping effort. The usual chain of command for such operations has been modified, at Moscow's request, so that Russian forces will not take orders directly from NATO.


Staskov said he envisioned no difficulties with the complicated command structure under which the Russian commander will report to U.S. General George Joulwan, the NATO supreme commander.


"Soldiers will find a common language. There's no alternative," he said. "The most important task is peace in the Balkans."


This is clearly an important venture for the Russians. At the request of television journalists, soldiers repeatedly carried the Russian flag and paratroopers' banner on and off the cargo plane to get a good shot, and the soldiers' temporary camp is strewn with signs screaming slogans like: "For the Balkans, peace -- for Russia, glory."


The Federation Council, parliament's upper chamber, approved the deployment for one year last week despite concern that the chronically underfunded army's soldiers would look like poor stepchildren alongside troops from the West.


But the troops that took to the air Thursday were spit-polished and turned out in brand new uniforms and equipment issued just for this mission, the soldiers said.


In fact, the entire mission will be a windfall for the paratroopers who signed up for service.


The soldiers and officers, who will spend six months to a year in Bosnia, will be paid $800 to $1,000 dollars a month for their service.


"And they're paying us in dollars," said Senior Sergeant Andrei Ribalkov, a communications expert.


Ribalkov, who has been serving in the Russian Army under contract since May 1994, said he usually earns 800,000 rubles (about $170) a month.


The comparatively lucrative pay was not the only reason Ribalkov was packing his bags.


"I'm not going just for the money. I'm going to see the world," he said.


"It will be interesting," he added, joining a group of colleagues who said this was not the worst duty to be sent on.


Russia's troops in the Balkans will be supplied from Ivanovo and an airbase in Pskov, and they will consist entirely of paratroopers.


Ribalkov echoed the sentiment of the deputy commander by saying that soldiers always manage to get along, no matter whom they are serving with. "If only the politicians were that way," he said.