Russia must learn that it is no longer a great power

Once again in Kosovo, the Russians have taken a public line that they cannot back up
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RUSSIA AND America are now locked in talks to achieve an agreement on the role to be played by Russian troops in the Kfor Kosovo peacekeeping force before Sunday's G8 summit. President Yeltsin is still insisting on a distinct Russian sector; Nato refuses to countenance anything that resembles the partition of Kosovo. On past experience, it is Nato's position that will prevail.

Yeltsin's demands reflect an exaggerated notion of his bargaining position, perhaps buoyed up by the press reaction in the West to last week's dash to Pristina airport by a few hundred Russian troops. Everyone seemed to agree that this was a clever ruse to assert Russia's interests and catch Nato on the hop. What better spot than the airport - the first port of call when seizing a country, after the radio station? Yeltsin ratified what was apparently some private enterprise on the part of his Defence Ministry. He appeared unconcerned that he had left his Foreign Ministry looking foolish. As time passes, the move begins to look a bit less clever. Once again in Kosovo, the Russians have taken a strong public line that they cannot back up. If the seizure of the airport had been followed by its use to airlift in thousands of troops who could have then moved into the north west of Kosovo, they might have left Nato with no choice but to accept a de facto partition. But a military short of funds, fuel, serviceable transport aircraft and disciplined, well-equipped units, with minimal international support, was in no position to build on its tactical success.

The result is to illustrate their weakness rather than their strength. They cannot get permission to fly aircraft over Eastern Europe to reinforce this small unit, while they are now dependent upon Nato for supplies of water and other basic provisions. Meanwhile, all the various parts of Kosovo are steadily being populated by Nato troops. The dash to Pristina may have been in recognition of the strategic importance of "facts on the ground", but these facts are being created by a Nato force that will soon be almost 100 times the size of the Pristina group and 10 times the size of the likely force the Russians can afford to deploy.

Many of the Serbs the Russians might have been able to reassure have now fled, and the last opportunities for retreating Serb forces in the north of the province to hand over to Russians in preference to Nato units will soon pass. In the meantime, the KLA have indicated that they will not consider themselves bound by any demilitarisation pledges if the Russians do succeed in setting themselves up in a distinct sector.

Current negotiations now appear to be focused on face-saving concessions for the Russians, with concentrated deployment for Russian troops but no separate sector, and a complicated chain of command, but with a Nato general at the top. Moscow will have to decide whether to fit in with Nato plans, as it has already fitted in with Nato diplomacy, or else decide that this is a game they no longer wish to play.

So a move designed to assert Russian independence and displeasure with Nato high-handedness will end up demonstrating once again that, when it comes to the crunch, the power rests with Nato.

This has been the case throughout the Kosovo crisis. Russian plans for the resolution of the Kosovo war from the start envisaged a distinct role for their forces, separate from Nato. But by constantly making maximum demands of Nato but with minimum of power to back them up, it has been obliged to climb down. Russia now appears on the international scene as a once great sporting star who compensates for a waning talent with tantrums. The West has decided to cope with this situation by patronising Moscow, ignoring all its stern warnings as so much hot air and saying how much they look forward to future co-operation. Instead of being frightened of Moscow's tough talk, the message coming back from Western capitals is the diplomatic equivalent of "Have you ever thought of trying some counselling?"

This underlines just how disastrous Kosovo has been for Russian diplomacy. At a time of serious economic difficulty - when help is needed to secure billion-dollar loans - Moscow did not need another row with the West. However genuine its indignation over the air campaign, it did not calculate how it could make best use of Nato's desire to stay on good terms with Russia.

If Prime Minister Primakov had not ordered his plane to turn back to Moscow instead of proceeding to Washington on the first day of bombing, he would have been able to maximise Russian influence when the American government most felt itself in need of Russian support. If a Russian veto had not been advertised in advance, then the Allies might well have worked through the UN Security Council instead of circumventing it.

If international opinion had been properly tested, the Russians might have realised just how much backing there was for Nato from countries normally antagonistic, largely of course because it was acting on behalf of Muslim people. If they had thought harder they might have wondered just how much political capital they really wanted to expend on someone like Milosevic, now branded a war criminal by a court supposedly supported by Moscow.

In the event, Russian support, in the name of a phoney Slavic solidarity, probably gave Belgrade exaggerated hopes. (Remember the Yugoslav proposals for an alliance with Belarus and Russia?) By the same token, it might have been the evidence that Russia now endorsed Nato's demands that persuaded Milosevic that the game was up.

It would be unwise to underestimate the sense of grievance in Moscow that they have been taken for granted by the West and treated with contempt, that their concerns about the enlargement of Nato were disregarded in a cavalier fashion, and that they have been encouraged to follow a capitalist path that has led them to bankruptcy. Nor would it be desirable for Russia simply to fall in line with Western views, or if it came to be assumed that the management of international affairs required only a consensus among Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. Western positions often require a serious critique.

It is, however, vital to stop patronising Russia when it pretends to be a great power. Far better to encourage it to think through sensibly the implications of its reduced circumstances for its diplomacy.

The writer is professor of war studies at King's College, London