Liberation Of Kosovo: Moscow pledges no more surprises

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NATO HAS extracted a promise from Moscow that it will stage no further nasty surprises in Kosovo after it infuriated the alliance by dispatching paratroops to stake out turf at Slatina airport, near Pristina.

A relieved-looking Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, emerged from talks in Moscow yesterday flourishing assurances that no more Russian troops would be sent to Kosovo without prior agreement.

In a reflection of Nato's distrust of the Russians, and the divisions at the heart of Mr Yeltsin's administration, the US envoy pointed out that these pledges came from "a senior and responsible level".

The Russians will be able to assess the impact of their stunt on relations with the West when a three-day G8 summit opens in Cologne on Friday. Mr Yeltsin has said he will attend only on the last day - Sunday - when he is expected to meet Mr Clinton and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder.

There was a warning yesterday from the British Defence Secretary, George Robertson, that Russia may pay a price at the summit for its mischief- making. Moscow's disunity "would hardly encourage the financial community next week when they are looking to financially help Russia", he said.

In fact, there are no plans for the G8 to discuss new aid to Russia; it is expected to confine itself to encouraging Moscow to introduce tough fiscal measures which would nail down an already negotiated $4.5bn (pounds 2.8bn) International Monetary Fund loan.

On a day of frantic diplomatic activity, presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton discussed the issue of the Russian contingent by telephone and - according to the Kremlin - agreed that there should be "intensive dialogue, including between military officials, with the aim of quickly finding an agreement" over the Kosovo peace-keeping operation.

Although the affair has done some damage to both sides - an alarming rift was exposed between Russia's generals and its Foreign Ministry, while Nato was embarrassed and wrong-footed - yesterday was devoted to making the best of a bad job. As tempers cooled, there was a flurry of telephone calls - between Mr Yeltsin and Mr Schroder; Robin Cook and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov; Sergei Stepashin, the Russian premier, and Al Gore, the US Vice-President.

The Russians appeared to believe that by winning the sprint to Pristina, they have forced Nato to pay more heed to their case. Moscow officials complained on Saturday that the Talbott delegation was playing hard-ball.

Then the mood changed; Mr Ivanov declared yesterday that "considerable progress" was now being made while Mr Talbott said he was "hopeful" and "satisfied".

But the disagreements remain. Mr Talbott said that the alliance was willing to allow Russia to have a "zone of responsibility" in Kosovo. "There will be parts of Kosovo where Russian participation will be important and manifest." But he repeated Nato's refusal to bow to Moscow's demand for its own sector. Suggestions are also emerging of a misunderstanding over the meaning of "unified command" - another central sticking point. Nato views this as one command - its own; but some Russian politicians have taken it to mean joint command.

The whole affair is shot through with misunderstandings - not least over the decision to send in the Russian paratroops. Mr Ivanov said it was part of a plan authorised by Mr Yeltsin, although he admitted that he was in the dark himself.

That much was painfully clear as news of the Russians' arrival in Pristina swept around the world on Saturday, when the baffled minister told the West that it was an unfortunate error, and said the troops would be withdrawn.

Mindful that winning the sprint for Pristina has won warm applause in Russia itself, the Kremlin has moved to claim credit. The President's deputy chief of staff, Sergei Prikhodko, confirmed the existence of presidential instructions for the operation, without saying when they were issued. But he said that the timing was the military's affair.