Nato in Kosovo: The peacekeeping deal - Hard-up Russia eats humble pie

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The Independent Online
ne glance at the unsmiling, expressionless features of Igor Sergeyev at the press conference late on Friday night in Helsinki was enough. The Kosovo peacekeeping deal achieved after three gruelling days of negotiation was close to a Russian capitulation - and the country's defence minister knew it.

How different from a week ago when Moscow, master of diplomatic chess, executed what looked to be a dazzling knight's gambit, sending 200 men to lay claim not only to Pristina airport but also to a determining role in the entire peacekeeping operation ahead. Nato was confounded, the Kosovo Serbs were delirious. The Russians, it seemed, were preparing to dictate their own terms.

Quickly, however, reality returned. Within a couple of days the dashing Russian cohort was having to beg British paratroopers for water. Not for the first time in the Kosovo crisis, when the crunch came an enfeebled, isolated, and virtually bankrupt Russia realised that it had little choice but to side with the West. So it was with the plan, co-authored by the Russians, that forced Slobodan Milosevic to back down. And so it has been in Helsinki, where Nato has held firm and achieved more or less what it wanted.

The timing, of course, was no accident. Hours before the deal was struck in Finland, the Group of Seven richest countries had begun their annual summit, with Russia's financial plight high on their agenda. Without new loans to help repay some $17.5bn of foreign debt due later this year, the country would be forced into humiliating default. "Our debts must be paid, and they will be paid," said Sergei Stepashin, the Russian Prime Minister, on arriving here to turn the G-7 into the G-8. But how? For all the goodwill generated by the deal in Finland, Mr Stepashin would be unwise to expect any direct assistance here. "There is no linkage," Tony Blair and other Nato leaders insist, and so it will probably prove. Last night, the summit scrapped a planned document outlining a "Partnership for the Prosperity of Russia". And for all the lofty talk about anchoring Russia in the Western system, the Partnership at first will offer just working groups, not billion-dollar infusions of cash.

Nor will it be very different even when Boris Yeltsin, whose personal intervention on Friday produced the concessions that led to the peacekeeping deal, pays a brief visit to the summit today. Had there not been an agreement, the sickly Russian President probably would not have come at all; as it is, the best he can hope is that the G-7 will lean on the International Monetary Fund for a vital $4.5bn loan, despite last week's failure by the Duma to pass a revenue-raising package on which it was supposedly conditional.

The alliance on the other hand has much to celebrate. If the agreement holds, it will have tied Russia into the Kosovo military arrangements on its terms: a unified Nato-led chain of command, no specific Russian sector (as Mr Yeltsin was demanding almost until the end), and no partition. Russian troops will operate in the French, US and German sectors, and maintain access to Pristina airport, which is still occupied by the band of 200. Though Russian soldiers will be under Russian command, their activities will be co-ordinated with the national sector commanders who in turn will report to General Sir Michael Jackson, head of K-For.

Significantly, too, the size of the force has been sharply reduced. Last week, the talk in Moscow was of sending at least 7,000, perhaps 10,000 or even 12,000 men to Kosovo. Instead there will be just five battalions, or 3,600 men: far fewer than the 13,000 troops committed by Britain or the 9,000 French or 8,000 German soldiers to be deployed in the province. Here, too, money was probably the decisive factor. In Kosovo, each country must pay for the upkeep of its troops. Its military budget in shreds, Russia simply could not afford any more.