Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched Moscow’s latest diplomatic initiative on April 1, calling for a meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations to address the crisis in Kosovo. This follows the failure of the Nemtsov and Primakov missions to Belgrade, as well as of Russia’s proposed resolution in the UN Security Council. Having severed relations with NATO and failed to sway the UNSC, Russia is running out of shared forums with the West, hence the appeal to the G8.
But while Russia continues to press resolutely forward with efforts to find a negotiated end to NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia, it has simultaneously been increasing the tempo and scale of its military posturing. Ships of the Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet began military exercises early in the crisis, though Russia claimed they had been previously planned. Russia’s 32nd Airborne Brigade exercises are also claimed by Moscow to be unrelated to the Kosovo crisis. The dispatch of Black Sea Fleet ships to the Mediterranean, however, is explicitly in response to the crisis, as was Moscow’s decision to sever all relations with NATO and to remove its troops in Bosnia from SFOR command. Planned or not, the test firing of a submarine launched ballistic missile as part of the North Sea Fleet exercises, following several references by Russian military leaders to the possibility of redeploying or even using nuclear weapons in the event that the Kosovo crisis expands, was certainly carried out with its political implications in mind. In the most recent turn of events, Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus declared that the arms embargo against Yugoslavia would no longer be respected.
Still, NATO has expressed only minimal concern over Russia’s military maneuvers and has rejected outright Russia’s diplomatic efforts. As NATO is not prepared to risk a war with Russia at this time, its decision to shrug off Russian bluster suggests NATO believes Russia is bluffing, and has chosen to call that bluff. What has given NATO the impression that Russia is militarily impotent? The West holds two fundamental beliefs about Russia and its military option.
First, the belief is that Russia dare not intervene militarily in Kosovo, since Russia needs Western money too much. And so, the IMF has continued to dangle a loan offer in front of Moscow’s nose throughout the crisis -- $4.8 billion to make a lot of noise but basically behave itself. But this assumes two things: that Russia actually believes it will receive any further substantial aid from the West, and that Russia is willing to surrender its fundamental national interests in favor of being able to service its debts... to the West. There have been few signs from the West that any serious bailout plan for Russia is or even can be considered. Given Russia’s economic track record and the current administration in Moscow, the impression is growing that any investment in Russia is merely throwing good money after bad.
Moreover, NATO has continued to encroach on areas Moscow deems fundamental to its national interest and security. NATO’s expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and its "Partnership for Peace" program in the Baltics, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, appears from Moscow to be a noose tightening around Russia. Russia sees itself as being treated like North Korea – surrounded, downplayed, and occasionally tossed a few scraps. And so it begins to take a page from the Pyongyang playbook – military posturing gets respect. Though unlike North Korea, Russia wants more than additional rice shipments, it wants the West to back off and treat it and its concerns with respect.
The second fundamental belief that the West holds about Russia is that it can not intervene militarily in Kosovo, or anywhere else for that matter. The Russian military is decrepit, underfunded, weakened by dissent and desertion. Russia could not defeat Chechnya – it wouldn’t dream of challenging NATO. Not to mention that, unable to feed its own troops, Russia can hardly afford to supply the Serbian army. But Russia’s fundamental national security interests can shift priorities in its resource allocation, and the shipment of a few surface to air missile systems, food, ammo, or fuel to Yugoslavia is a lot cheaper for Moscow than finally surrendering to NATO. For Russia, Yugoslavia is a line in the sand. If NATO can intervene in an internal matter in Kosovo, what stops it from establishing bases in Latvia and Azerbaijan, or intervening in Chechnya or Abkhazia?
Russia does not have to engage NATO forces. It can make one last big "bluff" by sending supplies and personnel to Yugoslavia – serving both to finally redefine its relation with NATO as one of animosity, and to provide Milosevic with a human shield. Would NATO bomb Russian "peacekeepers" in Kosovo or "civil engineers" in Novi Sad? Would it shoot down an Antonov full of "humanitarian aid" bound for Belgrade? That is Russia’s last card, and Moscow appears ready to play it.