By David Peterson

In the early morning hours of June 12, an armored column of some 200 paratroopers flying the Russian flag arrived in the center of Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo. Just twenty-four hours earlier these troops had been serving as members of the modest Russian peacekeeping contingent in UNPROFOR, the U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The mad dash from their encampment in the northern town of Ugljevik, across the Yugoslav border to Belgrade, then south to Pristina, "stunned both NATO and American officials," AP reported, the Russian troops moving through the capital "to the crackle of celebratory gunfire, honking horns and cheering Serb crowds." U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who hours before had broken off talks with the Russians over the nature of Russia's contribution to the multinational peacekeeping force soon to be deployed in Kosovo--talks that the Russians had described as little more than an effort to "spin out" the controversy until such time as NATO could deploy its troops, leaving the Russians out in the cold--returned immediately to Moscow, where he began another series of high-level talks even before the sun came up the next morning. The word out of Washington was that "it was an unfortunate mistake and the Russian troops will be withdrawn immediately" (White House spokesman Joe Lockhart). But nobody was buying it. Least of all the Russian General Staff.

Shortly after their arrival in Pristina, the Russian troops moved to physically occupy the Slatina airfield. Located a few kilometers southwest of the capital, the airfield is a prized military asset. Indeed, NATO had chosen Slatina to be its operational headquarters for the Kosovo mission--plans now indefinitely put on hold. This was because Slatina's runways are sufficiently fortified to accommodate the take-offs and landings of even the heaviest military aircraft. Plus, the airfield itself seems to have come through NATO's eleven-week bombing campaign with hardly a scratch on it. "We were the first ones to reach Pristina," the Kommersant daily newspaper quoted a high-ranking officer at the military's Central Headquarters as saying, "as happened once in Berlin." Once there, the Russians set up barricades and checkpoints on the roads leading to the airfield, and placed armed guards at them. Then, they dug in.

These days the Russian media are rife with the "Berlin" comparison. The metaphor has two obvious meanings. One: In 1945, the Red Army beat its Western allies to Berlin, capturing a huge swath of Central Europe that later became part of the Soviet bloc. Hence, the "Berlin" scenario today means the Russian paratroopers beating NATO to Pristina, where they staked their claim to the Slatina airfield. Two: At Potsdam, in July, 1945, the conquering powers divided Berlin into four occupation zones: American, British, French--and Soviet. But in real terms, the Berlin scenario meant two occupation zones only: East and West, with the fabled Berlin Wall eventually built in between. Today, NATO's fear is that if it fails to resist the Russians' desire to command and control their own military zone in Kosovo, it could lead to the de facto partition of Kosovo somewhere down the road into one territory for ethnic Serbs (where the Russians are) and one territory for ethnic Albanians (where the five NATO powers are). In fact, Washington, Brussels, and London seem to fear this possibility so much they will do just about anything to stave it off. "We have made it quite clear that there will not be a Russian sector," U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeated almost daily in June. "[W]e're not going to tolerate a sort of East German solution," the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook enjoined.

When NATO's British troops finally arrived in Pristina some 15 hours eleven after the Russians had, they were denied entry to the Slatina airfield by a contingent made up of both Russian and Serbian troops. (Under the timetable for the Serb withdrawal from Kosovo that both NATO and the Serbs signed on June 9, all armed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces had until June 15 to withdraw from territory that included the area around Pristina.) A standoff between the NATO and Russian forces ensued that lasted one week, when the Russian Defense and Foreign ministers flew to Helsinki to work out a "formula for cooperation" in Kosovo with members of the Clinton Administration, Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen included. Sometimes tense, sometimes comical (it turns out that the Russians had brought only five-days-worth of supplies with them, and by June 15, were forced to ask NATO to provide them with fresh water), Russian sentiment was best expressed by Leonid Ivashov, the man who until then had conducted Russia's negotiations with the U.S. Department of Defense over Russia's role in the peacekeeping operation. "We are not going to beg Americans concerning a zone of responsibility in Kosovo," he said several days before the Helsinki meeting. "We will merely pronounce our sector and have it agreed upon with Yugoslavians."

Although the Russian President instructed his negotiators at Helsinki that he "categorically disagrees" with Washington on the question of whether Russia should be allowed to man its own military sector, the conflict over the occupation of Kosovo was finally settled along much different lines. Authority over the Slatina airfield will be shared by Russia and NATO alike. The structure of command that any future deployment of Russian troops--not expected to exceed 3,600 at most, if that many--would have in relation to the KFOR is a kind of mock separation of command whereby the Russians will be allowed to do their own thing within the context of NATO's overwhelmingly larger force of 50,000. And on the question of what role Russian troops would play on the ground in Kosovo, the Russians backed away from their categorical demand that they be given their own occupation zone comparable to that of the five NATO powers. Instead, they settled for what were described as "zones of responsibility" within the French, German, and American sectors. As long as they stayed out of NATO's hair, that is, the Russians could go on make-believing that they were playing a crucial role in the occupation of Kosovo. And that they and their NATO counterparts were acting under the "aegis of the United Nations," to repeat a phrase that the Russian President had become so enamored with.

Neither Washington, Brussels, nor London--NATO's real leadership, that is--looked too favorably on Russia's Kosovo maneuver, which clearly had the blessings of the Russian President and his General Staff in Moscow. NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark called the event "bizarre" and reiterated the bottomline that NATO would only accept a "NATO-led force that is responsive to a unified chain of command and takes political direction from the North Atlantic Council." At one point, the flustered commander of Britain's 5th Airborne Brigade, Brigadier Gen. Adrian Freer, snapped at his Russian counterpart at the airfield, "What the hell are you doing here? Get on to your commanders and get out of here now."

Nor were the Western media overly pleased with Russia's military expectations and the standoff at the airfield. "Clinton and his top advisers must act quickly to convince Russia to start coordinating its peacekeepers with the alliance's forces," the Chicago Tribune asserted in an editorial titled "Taming a rogue Russian bear"--the implication being that Russia is a "rogue" for having acted to take the airfield without permission from NATO. The "rogue" wouldn't be at a loss for detractors. "Russia can't have its own zone," the Washington Post thundered, "and a NATO general must have sole command of the overall force."

Of course the Russians didn't see it quite that way. As Vladimir P. Lukin, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Parliament, explained his country's decision to send its troops into Kosovo: "Instead of a previously agreed operation, NATO carried out a completely different one. Instead of a U.N. operation, a NATO operation was conducted. The rapid deployment of forces was nothing but an attempt to bring the situation in line with the resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council." In short, "Something had to be done. And it was."

On its face, the Russian position might seem strange; Lukin's comments hardly jibe with the standard view out of Washington and Brussels that the Serbs had finally agreed to allow a NATO occupation force to move into Kosovo, and that the U.N. Security Council had given NATO its blessings. For example, on June 10, the very day that NATO suspended its bombing campaign, President Clinton held a press conference in which he stated: "From the beginning, we had three clear objectives: the withdrawal of Serb forces, the deployment of an international security force with NATO at it core, the return of the Kosovars to their home to live in security and self-government. Serbia now has accepted these conditions……" Reporting on the debate in the U.N. Security Council over the wording of what would become Resolution 1244, the New York Times's Judith Miller wrote that the draft resolution "stipulates that the NATO forces would go into Kosovo…."

The next day, after the Council passed the resolution, Miller was at it again. "[T]he resolution bestows United Nations legitimacy on the peace plan and the NATO-led military operations in Kosovo." AP reported that upon hearing the news of the cease-fire, "thousands of people streamed into the streets [in Belgrade], celebrating what their government sought to proclaim as a victory, despite the devastation of their country and acceptance of terms Milosevic had vowed never to accept."

But the Russian position really shouldn't seem so strange--after all, unlike Washington's interpretation of the agreements, it was the Russian interpretation that was supported by the actual terms of each of the agreements of early June. For neither the cease-fire document that the Serb Parliament voted to ratify on June 3 (now Annex II to the subsequent Security Council Resolution), nor the so-called "Kosovo Military-Technical Agreement" that was signed by NATO and the Serbs on June 9, nor U.N. Security Council Res. 1244 (June 10) contain so much as a single phrase giving NATO what NATO and the Western media have repeatedly insisted they did--command and control authority over the peacekeeping force. (See the SIDEBAR: WHAT THE DOCUMENTS REALLY SAY ABOUT THE OCCUPATION OF KOSOVO.)

In fact, each of these documents state something quite different: that any international security force to be deployed in Kosovo operate "under United Nations auspices" (UNSC Res. 1244, Article 5; and Annex II, Article 3). Instead, one has to go all the way back to the Interim Agreement for Peace and Self-Government in Kosovo ("Rambouillet," Feb. 23) to find terms that come close to what NATO claims the three agreements of early June state. There, in the infamous "Appendix B: Status of Multi-National Military Implementation Force," the conditions of which turned NATO into an occupying power for the whole of Yugoslavia, and are widely believed to have caused the Serbs to reject the entire agreement, we read the following: 1. For the purpose of this Appendix, the following expressions shall have the meanings hereunder assigned to them: a. "NATO" means the North Atlantic Treaty Organization…………, its subsidiary bodies, its military Headquarters, the NATO-led KFOR, and any elements/units forming any part of KFOR, whether or not they are from a NATO member country and whether or not they are under NATO or national command and control…... The phrase "NATO-led KFOR" (par. 1.a, above) represents the one and only instance in which an official document proposing a solution to the Yugoslav conflict specifies that any peacekeeping force for Kosovo will be NATO-led. But the Serbs rejected the terms of the Rambouillet settlement-a momentous decision that provided NATO with the pretext it wanted to launch its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, leading to the full occupation of Kosovo that we see today. On the contrary. What the Serbs accepted were the terms of what became known as Annex II to Security Council Res. 1244 (June 10) and the Kosovo Military-Technical Agreement (June 9). And neither of these documents contain terms that state what immediately became Washington's and Brussels' interpretation of them: that they give NATO the authority to create a "NATO-led force that is responsive to a unified chain of command and takes political direction from the North Atlantic Council" (Gen. Wesley Clark, June 12).

As a matter of fact (as opposed to pure doctrine), the three documents of early June state something quite different: that the "international civil and security presences" that are to be deployed in Kosovo shall operate "under United Nations auspices," and that they will act only "as may be decided under Chapter VII of the [U.N.] Charter" (Article 3, Annex II, Res. 1244, June 10)--a Chapter VII deployment clearly intended to mean under the command and control of the Security Council's Military Staff Committee (Articles 45-47 of the U.N. Charter). Not--repeat: not--under the command and control of NATO.

Like it or not, both the Russians and Serbs had a legitimate beef with Washington's and Brussels' interpretation of the cease-fire and peacekeeping agreements. At least as far as their actual terms are concerned. But as the Lone Ranger used to say: Actions speak louder than words. And as the events of early and mid-June taught us all-too-well, it was NATO, not the Russians or the Serbs, that looked upon the terms of the agreements as nothing more than mere words permitting NATO to undertake whatever operation it wanted.