Balkan Agreement: Russia - Moscow fights to save military face

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A SECOND round of talks will be held in Moscow today in an effort to close the yawning gulf between Nato and Russia over the role of Russian troops in the Kosovo peace-keeping force and - crucially - the question of who will command them.

Before yesterday's negotiations began, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, made it clear that Nato was opposed to the creation of a special Russian "sector" in Kosovo, or any deal that could produce a de facto partition of Kosovo. Russia's unwillingness to accept any arrangement in which its troops would overtly be under Nato's command is leading the agenda in the talks - which include US, Russian and Finnish generals.

Anti-alliance sentiment in domestic political circles and among the military top brass has compelled the government to find a solution which will allow it at least to claim that it controls its own soldiers.

But whatever the wording of the UN resolution on Kosovo, Nato wants overall control. There should be "unity of command", Mr Talbott said yesterday, though there could be a "specific arrangement for division of labour within it". He said there should be "nothing that would bear any resemblance to partitioning or dividing Kosovo up into different national sectors".

Nato fears that if Russian troops, which are opposed to the alliance's intervention in Yugoslavia, have their own sector, it will become a haven for Serb militias and a deterrent to returning Kosovar Albanian refugees. And creating a secure enough environment to lure the refugees home will be harder still if Nato does not have overall command of the peace -keeping forces.

For Moscow, it is a political minefield. Surveys suggest that 95 per cent of the country condemns Nato for its role in the Balkans. Allegations have been flying for days that Boris Yeltsin's peace envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, capitulated to the West. Any concessions by Moscow to the alliance would be greeted with a barrage of criticism.

The Russians will contemplate a command structure similar to the one governing their peace-keepers in Bosnia, where they are under Nato supervision but the direct command of the General Staff in Moscow. However, one of their main negotiators, Col-Gen Leonid Ivashov - an outspoken critic of Nato - made it clear yesterday that Moscow still hoped for its own zone.

Last night it was still unclear how many Russian troops will go to Kosovo. The Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, has said Russia is ready to send up to 10,000 men. However, equipping and maintaining a force of this size is expensive and the government has long been struggling to find enough funds to maintain its ill-equipped and demoralised military. The army's predicament - illustrated starkly this week by the mass desertion of 45 soldiers - was spelt out in unusually candid terms yesterday by the new Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin. The armed forces were in a "catastrophic state" and "barely able to survive", he told a cabinet meeting.

The lack of funds suggests that the Russian contingent will be considerably less than 10,000 and probably closer to 3,000. The bulk are expected to be paratroopers. Yesterday the head of the airborne troops, General Nikolai Staskov, said 2,200 paratroopers were preparing to go to Kosovo, although they would not be ready to go until mid-August.

The Kosovo mission is expected to be popular among Russian servicemen despite their distaste for Nato. Most of Russia's soldiers are paid a pittance, often months late. Some have even reportedly starved. Suicide is the highest cause of death in the ranks.

But Russian troops in Bosnia have been paid up to three times more than in Russia, receiving their wages in hard currency and on time - not least to deter them from selling their weapons to the Serbs, as they did in the past. As Moscow attaches much importance to its role in Kosovo, the same conditions are likely to apply.