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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Envoy to NATO Leads Airport Force

When Russia has issues with NATO, it calls on General Viktor Zavarzin.

When it was time to build ties with the alliance, Russia sent Zavarzin, known among military men for his diplomatic skills, to NATO headquarters as Russia's first military representative there.

And he was withdrawn when, angered by NATO bombings of Yugoslavia, Moscow decided to sever ties with the alliance.

When it was time to negotiate peace, Russia sent Zavarzin, known for his persistence, to the table in Germany with special Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin.

After an agreement was reached in Cologne last week, Zavarzin mysteriously popped up in Bosnia to launch an early start to the Russian peacekeeping operation that caught NATO off guard.

"He just turned up there. But it's easy to guess how he turned up there, what powers he was given," a Defense Ministry official said.

While the advance of 200 Russian soldiers to the Pristina airport Saturday appeared to startle international media and politicians, no one was surprised to learn who was leading the troops.

An experienced peacekeeper, Zavarzin, 50, led Russian troops during the 1996 civil war in Tajikistan, coordinating with a United Nations observation force. He returned to Moscow in 1997 to serve as deputy head of the Defense Ministry's department for military cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States.

He is also a Russian general with experience in military diplomacy - a great rarity, according to NATO officials.

"On the ground [in Brussels], he had a lot of experience with NATO military and he knows about developments in the Bosnia campaign and in and around Kosovo," said one official. "From the Russian perspective, he was the best person to be there on the scene."

Some say the Kosovo operation made Zavarzin a minor hero, beating a historic enemy on its own terms. Within hours of his arrival in Pristina, President Boris Yeltsin promoted him to colonel general from lieutenant general.

Others brand him an adventurist for leading the troops into isolation at an airport with only five days' dry rations. On Tuesday, the Russians in Kosovo were forced to borrow water from British soldiers they meant to pre-empt.

"He's a totally typical Soviet general, with typical Soviet general's complexes," said Alexander Golts, military correspondent at Itogi magazine, assuming the voice of one of Russia's military elite. "We should be on a par with NATO, we should make them fear us, we should kick their butt."