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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Peacekeepers Eager for Kosovo Duty




TULA, Central Russia -- For the soldiers of the Tula Paratroop Division, deployment as peacekeepers in Kosovo will mean a chance to show up those NATO weaklings who can't fix a truck by themselves.


But it also could mean new toys for their kids, cars - and maybe even apartments.


The promised high pay - more than $1,000 a month - ranked alongside rivalry with Western troops in conversations Thursday with the Tula soldiers, many in their teens or early 20s, waiting for the order to move out.


About 1,200 members of the division - about a third of the expected 3,600 Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo - have been on alert for almost three weeks in their barracks and a field camp near Tula, about 200 kilometers south of Moscow.


Ever since 200 Russian troops from the Bosnian peacekeeping brigade - some of them originally from the Tula division - made a stunning dash across Yugoslavia and took over the airport in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, 100 men from Tula have been waiting to replace them. The others slated for Kosovo - two battalions - say they expect to serve in the German sector, though nothing is clear yet.


Captain Vladimir Beloskursky, a muscular, tanned veteran with a mouth full of gold teeth and a scar from Chechnya on his close-cropped head, balances the worries of his wife and 12-year-old daughter with a chance to improve household finances. At least, he says, his wife is calmer than she was about Chechnya.


"Sure, she will cry and watch the news all night long, but what can she do? And who is going to listen to her?" said Beloskursky, 33, taking a long drag on his cigarette during a break at the shooting range. "Besides, she's gotten used to it in 13 years [of marriage]."


"My daughter is the one who says: 'Don't go,' but I tell her, 'Don't you want rollerblades?' But she says, stubbornly, 'I can go without, you should stay.'"


Officers have told the soldiers they will at least make the $1,070 per month earned by the peacekeeping brigade in Bosnia. Regular pay is about 2,000 rubles ($83).


Beloskursky is counting on at least six months in Kosovo. At the higher pay rate, Beloskursky could earn enough for a two-room apartment in Tula, where prices are much lower than in Moscow. He now rents a one-room apartment for 500 rubles a month.


"Would you believe me if I told you I wanted to go to Kosovo to help the Slav brothers? It's a bitter question of finances," he said with a grin. "But I am telling you, if there were an order, we would go there, pay or no pay."


Sergei, a 23-year-old sergeant from Tomsk in Siberia, volunteered for Kosovo two months ago.


"I want to see the world," Sergei said, standing in scorching heat by his armored vehicle. His grandmother and brothers and sisters, his only family, are not against it. Viktor, Sergei's 20-year-old comrade, also was an eager volunteer. "Why waste time?" he said. "Here, we just get little tiny paychecks."


They spend their time practice firing machine guns and rifles from their armored vehicles, endlessly checking and readjusting their weapons.


The actual number of servicemen, their funding and how they will get to Kosovo is still up in the air, said Lieutenant Colonel Nikolai Ryabovol, deputy commander of the Kosovo brigade. The men could be flown to Kosovo, while their vehicles could either arrive by train or by barge. But, as the division's mottos says, "There are no tasks that can't be accomplished."


On Friday, the Federation Council, or upper house of parliament, is to vote on authorizing their deployment, and after that they could depart with a few hours' notice.


"When we were off to Baku," says Major Alexander Stolyarov, recalling a 1989 mission to suppress ethnic clashes in Azerbaijan, "we had heard about it first at 9 p.m. At 6 a.m. we were off the base."


The soldiers are mostly youthful draftees, but the officers are professionals, most of whom have experience in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia and Angola.


They take pride in establishing Russia's international role. "If it happens without us there, what would we be worth? A kopek!" Stolyarov says.


Several soldiers expressed the belief that Russian soldiers are tougher and can endure more than their NATO counterparts can. They say they would not wait for a specialist to defuse a mine or fix a truck - something they claim NATO soldiers would never embark on.


The division has requested additional manpower, asking for a list of 500 volunteers from the reserves and other units. "But we will select only about 150 to 200," said Colonel Mikhail Zhdanenya, the division's acting chief of staff. What they need now are drivers and mechanics for their armored vehicles, he said.


The division is counting on at least three years in Kosovo, Zhdanenya said, "We went to Bosnia for a year only, but five years later, we are still there."


As for the conscripted soldiers, only those who have spent at least a year in the service are eligible for Kosovo, Zhdanenya said. And even for them, their parents' consent was required - a new development after the bungled war in Chechnya and a slew of protests and lawsuits from parents whose sons were killed or maimed there.


The soldiers had to fit the list of necessary skills, be "exceptionally disciplined" and satisfy psychological requirements. "Any dishonor there would be total blow," Zhdanenya said. "And you know our custom, to drink a bit of vodka. ... And there, among the Muslims, it's not acceptable."


The brigade has been promised translators to help the troops to communicate with the NATO troops and the locals, although with the Serbs, whose language is similar to Russian, no one foresees problems.


"And, Albanians ... I have not met them before, so I don't know what language they speak," Zhdanenya says. Zhdanenya says he has a lot of Serbian friends from his stint in Bosnia. To illustrate the point, he pulls out a stack of business cards from his desk. "They say, 'With Russia, we are a legion. Without Russia, we are just a truckload of men.'"


But he adds, "We are going in as a neutral force. We cannot defend one side and not defend another. That's the point of peacekeeping."