By Robert G. Kaiser and David Hoffman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 1999; Page A1
Russia's surprise deployment of 200 troops
to the Pristina airport on June 12 was part of
a scheme to send into Kosovo a contingent
of 1,000 or more men who could have tried
to stake out a Russian zone in the northwest
sector of the province, Western intelligence
analysts have concluded.
The carefully planned operation was
thwarted when the governments of Hungary,
Bulgaria and Romania, prodded by the
United States, denied Russian requests to
use their airspace to fly more Russians into
When senior U.S. officials realized what the
Russians had in mind, they lobbied the
Eastern Europeans on overflight rights and
began pursuing their Russian counterparts by
telephone "at ungodly hours" on Sunday,
June 13, according to one official. The
Americans warned the Russians that their
unilateral military moves risked obliterating
the good will generated by their help in
reaching a peace agreement.
Western analysts still dispute whether
Moscow's intention was to seize a Russian
zone in Kosovo or simply to send in more
troops to strengthen Russia's hand in negotiating peacekeeping
arrangements. Either way, the unilateral deployment of a large contingent
would have caused "grievous harm to support for Russia" in Washington,
said one senior State Department official.
The Russians nearly succeeded in adding to their forces on the ground,
briefly winning permission from Hungary for six IL-76 military transport
planes to fly over that country on June 11, before it was clear that the
Russians were sending 200 men from their Bosnian peacekeeping force to
the airport in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. But before those Ilyushins could
get into the air, the United States asked Hungary to deny the Russians use
of its airspace, and the Hungarians agreed, telling the Russians that only an
act of the Hungarian parliament could grant overflight rights.
A reconstruction of the events surrounding the Russians' unexpected
deployment into Kosovo, based on reporting in Washington, Moscow
and Brussels, indicates that the Russian operation was thoroughly planned,
deliberately deceptive and considerably more ambitious than its
accomplishments would suggest. Many questions remain about who in
Moscow was in charge of the decision-making that led to the operation.
When the NATO allies realized, late on June 11, that the Russians were
moving men toward Pristina, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the NATO
commander, speedily devised a plan to deploy NATO troops by
helicopter to the Pristina airport, creating the possibility for the first
NATO-Russia confrontation since the end of the Cold War. But British
Gen. Michael Jackson, head of the peacekeeping force, argued that such
a move would upset the delicate arrangements he had negotiated with
Yugoslav officers on their withdrawal from Kosovo, and Clark's plan was
In Moscow, Russian generals were openly frustrated at their inability to
complete the deployment.
"When the Russian military saw how popular their first little glorious
victory was," said one senior U.S. official, referring to the arrival of the
200 troops at Pristina's airport, "the effort to score again [with additional
deployments to Kosovo] became more intense, and more important from
their point of view. If they'd been able to keep on going, you could have
had a very serious breakdown in confidence, and maybe in our ability to
organize a peacekeeping effort in Kosovo."
Western officials are still debating the Russian moves, wondering both
why the Russian military took the risks it did and what role President Boris
Yeltsin played in the decisions.
Senior intelligence analysts in Washington have concluded that there was
strong consensus among Russian officials in Moscow, including Yeltsin,
that Russian troops had to play a role in Kosovo after Yugoslav President
Slobodan Milosevic accepted peace terms. One official said Yeltsin
agreed in general terms that Russian troops would have to be deployed in
Kosovo at least as soon as NATO forces were. "Whether he [explicitly]
approved the idea of going in first, we aren't sure," this official said.
In Moscow, Russian sources said Yeltsin did approve the deployment in
advance, during a telephone conversation with Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin,
chief of the Russian general staff.
Russian military officials have boasted that the deception involved in
Pristina airport operation was deliberate. "The operation was very
carefully prepared," Gen. Georgi Shpak, commander of Russia's
paratroopers, told a Russian newspaper. "The main difficulty was to hide
the fact that the operation was being prepared."
One question is the degree to which Yeltsin, frail and ill, participates
detailed discussions of complex issues. Western intelligence analysts and
many Russian sources say his involvement is minimal.
In late April, Yeltsin complained in a closed meeting of his national
security advisers about Russia's inability to influence the Yugoslav war.
"Why are they not afraid of us?" he lamented, according to a source in
Moscow. His generals had no answer.
Western nations were alarmed when the Russians moved into the Pristina
airport, though not afraid of the small force of 200. Within two weeks the
British were providing food and water for the isolated contingent.
But Clark took the Russian deployment seriously, which led to his plan
dispatch U.S. troops by helicopter to the airport. Defense Secretary
William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, supported Clark's plan. But Jackson and the British
government demurred, and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov assured
U.S. officials that the Russian force moving toward Kosovo would stop
before it crossed into the province.
The Russians' premature arrival in Pristina despite Ivanov's assurance
complicated the diplomatic exchanges over the peacekeeping
arrangements. The Russians insisted that they be given a separate sector
within Kosovo, contributing to the conclusion of some Western
intelligence analysts that they had intended to establish such a sector
unilaterally. Other Western officials argued that the Russian goal was to
create a presence on the ground as a bargaining chip.
The negotiations sharpened U.S. officials' questions about who was in
charge in Moscow. At the meetings in Helsinki to decide on Russia's role
in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation, U.S. officials perceived open
disagreements between Russia's civilian and military officials. They also
saw manifestations of the splits within the Russian military. Marshal Igor
Sergeyev, the defense minister, is regarded skeptically by many of his
colleagues, according to Russian sources. Several sources said Sergeyev
may not have been told by Kvashnin, his chief of staff, about the surprise
move to Pristina's airport.
An especially problematic figure for the Americans was Gen. Leonid
Ivashov, a former Communist Party commissar in the old Soviet Army
who runs the Russian Defense Ministry's international cooperation
department. Ivashov is a long-time hard-liner who has admitted that he
agitated in favor of a military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 and
who is clearly skeptical of any Russian cooperation with NATO.
In the Helsinki negotiations, U.S. officials said, little progress was
until Cohen drew his Russian counterpart, Sergeyev, into private meetings
from which Ivashov was excluded. Even then, disagreement persisted on
whether Russia would have its own sector in Kosovo.
Yeltsin announced last Friday that he had firmly instructed Sergeyev to
win approval for a separate Russian zone, saying he "categorically does
not agree" with the idea of Russian troops patrolling sectors controlled by
other countries. But several hours later, for reasons still not clear to the
non-Russian participants, the Russians agreed to a plan that dispersed
their troops through the British, French, German and American sectors,
with no zone of their own.
At the end of the long negotiations, Sergeyev and Ivanov said they had
make one last phone call to Yeltsin for his approval of the final deal. They
adjourned to the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, then came back to accept
the arrangements. Had they spoken personally with Yeltsin? "They said it
was Yeltsin," according to one U.S. negotiator.