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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Russia Shuns Unified Force

By Pavel Felgenhauer

The U.S.-Russian debate to hammer out a role for Russia in Kosovo peacekeeping has been long and acrimonious. Russia wants its own sector in Kosovo and independence from NATO. The United States said this is unacceptable and that there should be "unity of command."

To press Russia's cause, 200 paratroopers were rushed into Kosovo last Friday and are still occupying Pristina airport, preventing NATO forces from using the runway.

But was it all worth the fray? "Unity of command" sounds great, but it will be superficial in any case. Russian troops in Kosovo will not be taking any substantive commands from the West or NATO. If a Russian officer receives a command from his supposed NATO chief, he will immediately communicate with Moscow and execute the order only if it is confirmed by the General Staff.

In Bosnia, Russian peacekeepers have been for many years supposedly under Western command. But when the Russian military last week decided to send troops from Bosnia into Kosovo, they did not ask for permission from their presumed NATO commanders and did not even inform them of the move. Today, NATO commanders in Bosnia do not know whether the Russian troops will return from Kosovo to their posts, whether other Bosnia-based forces will follow the first column. The "unified command" in Bosnia is unified only in name. In Kosovo, it will be the same.

It also does not matter much whether the Russian occupation zone in Kosovo be called an "independent sector," or an "area," or what not. In their zone of responsibility, the Russians will keep out armed Kosovo Liberation Army thugs and prevent deportation of Serbian civilians, whether NATO likes it or not.

It is not the command structure, but the true intentions of Western powers that are the core problem. Does NATO actually want all Serbs evicted at gunpoint by KLA thugs and does the West keep negotiating about a "Russian presence" to finish the dirty work of ethnic cleansing while nobody's there to stop it?

Today, KLA gunmen have virtually occupied Prizren f Kosovo's second largest city f and are clearing out thousands of Serbs. Fritz von Korff, the German general commanding the NATO forces in the town, has told reporters that he had no orders to stop the KLA moving in as long as they did not hinder NATO. Serbian civilians do not count.

The continued presence of a significant number of Serbs in Kosovo is apparently considered a security risk by NATO. If Serbs remain, especially in a Russian-controlled zone, they might be a source of future guerrilla attacks against the occupying forces. At the same time, a massive influx of Serb refugees might destabilize the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, which the West wants to topple.

However, a massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosovo might turn into a political disaster for pro-Western forces in Russia. The Kremlin helped press Milosevic into accepting a rogue deal because it was expecting to get more Western financial aid. Internally, the Kremlin and oligarch-controlled media tried to sell the deal to the Russian public as a harsh bargain that nevertheless stopped the bombing and killing. The present cleansing in Kosovo is blowing this cover story.

Last week it was reported that only 29 percent of Russians supported the Kosovo peace plan. After weeks of ethnic cleansing there will be no support at all and, instead, total public outrage.

Such an outcome could destabilize President Boris Yeltsin's regime. The Russian paratroopers were rushed to Kosovo to press the West into concessions, to help stop the cleansing, to establish a safe haven for the Serbs and, above all, to save Yeltsin and his pro-Western proxies in Moscow.

In the midst of the operation, however, a very significant thing happened f as the Russian paratroopers moved through Serbia, the General Staff fully took over the operation and sent the column into Pristina without consulting the Kremlin, the prime minister, the Foreign Ministry or even Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. The Kremlin later had to sullenly approve the move because it was very popular in Russia.

In Kosovo, the Russian paratroopers are heavily outnumbered and will hardly seriously influence the situation on the ground, or save the majority of Serbs from ethnic cleansing. In Russia, however, the end result may be much more significant: The military may figure that if they once again defy authority and move to oust Yeltsin, their armor will be drowned in flowers in Moscow, as it was last week in Pristina.

Pavel Felgenhauer is chief defense correspondent of Segodnya.