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IT WAS the second time in the Balkans war a VIP's aircraft has been turned around in anger. Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, had clearly not expected the Russians to send troops to the Kosovo border yesterday. And there cannot be much doubt that, as his aircraft headed back to Moscow, he was seething.
He had been en route to Brussels, after a second day of gruelling talks in Moscow in which he failed to persuade the Russians to accept "unified - ie Nato-led - command" over the Kosovo peace-keeping force, and to drop their plans for a sector of their own.
He left Moscow believing that, though deadlocked, the negotiations would continue at a later date. As he did so - to his embarrassment, and that of a startled Nato - freshly painted Russian trucks and armoured personnel carriers were already clattering across the Serbian landscape, flags flying, on their way to the Kosovo border.
Three months after Russia's then prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, had turned his Washington-bound jet around in protest at the start of the air campaign, Mr Talbott - locked anew in talks with the Russians last night - was also performing a hasty about-turn. His problems, though, lie with the conflict's troubled end.
Russia's decision to divert hundreds of men from Bosnia duty and move them to the Kosovo border was a message to the West that Moscow was serious about its ambition to be allowed to run a sector in the north of Kosovo, without answering to Nato's generals.
Fearful that it would still be arguing with Mr Talbott while Nato troops moved into the province, Russia decided to ensure it gets a share. By stationing troops on the edge of Kosovo - ostensibly to make preparations for more long-term Russian peace-keeping forces - it could at least achieve its ambition of going into the province at the same time as Nato's soldiers.
"We do not plan to be the first to enter Kosovo, but not the last either," said Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian side in the negotiations. Reports in Moscow said 1,000 troops were on standby to fly to Yugoslavia from three Russian bases.
But it was a manoeuvre born of deep and long-felt resentment. Wasted by years of steady collapse and a humiliating defeat in Chechnya, the Russian military remains a mysterious, byzantine structure in whose corridors anti-Western sentiment runs high. It makes no secret about the profound anger in the ranks about the war in Yugoslavia. This is far more intense within the Russian Defence Ministry than in other government departments.
For weeks, vague threats have been surfacing in the Russian media that the military wanted to arm Belgrade, or supply intelligence to the Serbian forces. After an initial burst of outrage, the Kremlin and Foreign Ministry concluded that Russia had little choice other than to work with the West in search of a solution. But the army remained apart. From start to finish, the Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, was noisily hawkish.
Yesterday, the military made its feelings felt. It not only caught Mr Talbott, Nato, and the West's political leaders on the hop, but also policy- makers in the Russian Foreign Ministry. Frantic attempts by foreign diplomats to find out what was going on from their contacts within the ministry were met by silence and apparent bewilderment.
"They denied any knowledge of it, let alone making any attempt to explain or defend it," said one source. Within hours, the Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, was on the phone to Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, assuring her that Russia's troops had no plans to enter Kosovo itself - a move that would violate the peace agreement.
Did President Boris Yeltsin - who is, after all, the commander-in-chief of Russia's army - play any part or even know? After several weeks of seeming relatively healthy, he had another bad day yesterday. Looking bleary-eyed and confused, he made an erratic appearance before the television cameras in the Kremlin, in which he rambled about being telephoned late at night by a grateful Bill Clinton.
This was not the performance of a man on top of events. The Kremlin itself offered no clues as to its role in the affair. By mid-evening, it had still said nothing.
And yet it would be an act of folly by any general to redeploy troops abroad without getting some form of clearance from the President's team, which includes his younger daughter, Tatyana.
"The military couldn't do something like this without consulting the President, if it only amounted to a paper being shoved under his nose," said one diplomatic source, "The military must have managed to twist someone's arm in the Kremlin."Reuse content