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Yugoslavia: Analysis from Washington -- Moscow's Third Way

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The introduction of some 200 Russian troops into Pristina and their continuing occupation of the airport there reflect Moscow's continuing effort to navigate between cooperation with NATO and confrontation with Western creditor countries.

This essential continuity has been obscured over the weekend both by often apocalyptic Western commentaries and by Western governments anxious to overcome the difficulties that arose when 200 Russian soldiers unexpectedly showed up in the Kosovar capital.

Commentators in leading American and West European newspapers speculated that this latest Russian action could mean one of two things: It could be a rogue operation by Russian generals and thus an indication that President Boris Yeltsin is no longer in control of the situation in Moscow.

Or, these same analysts suggested, it could mean that Yeltsin has had a change of heart and now shares the nationalist agenda of many of NATO's most vociferous critics in the Russian capital. In either case, the prospects for East-West relations were extremely gloomy.

At the other extreme were spokesmen for both NATO forces and Western governments who went to great lengths to suggest the Russian presence in Pristina was a "bump in the road" and that the differences between Moscow and NATO that it reflected would soon be overcome.

Each of these three views -- the notion that Yeltsin does not have total control of his government, the idea that Yeltsin's views about the West are evolving, and the belief that this "bump" will soon be overcome -- captures part of the current East-West geopolitical reality.

And only a combination of the three provides not only an accurate description of what is going on but also a picture of just where Russian policy on Yugoslavia and on the West now is.

As reporting from Moscow on Saturday and Sunday shows, few Russians care very much about who ordered the introduction of Russian forces -- Yeltsin, the defense ministry, or a particular general. Instead, they are pleased that Russia has been able to create a fact on the ground that NATO was earlier unwilling to grant but is equally unwilling to directly challenge.

Yeltsin will gain support abroad in at least two ways. On the one hand, the Serbs and other states angry at NATO and the United States will see Russia as their spokesman/protector, even if Moscow eventually backs down.

And on the other, the Russian president will almost certainly be able to extract some greater concessions from the West in order to bring the Russian forces into conformance with NATO's plans, something Yeltsin will be better positioned to do if there is confusion about just who gave the order to send them there in the first place.

Moreover, reporting from Moscow also makes it clear that Yeltsin is evolving in his views about the West under the impact of NATO's actions in Yugoslavia. Yeltsin is clearly less uncritical of the West than he was a year ago, and he is very much interested in demonstrating his own and his country's power, especially because both have so obviously declined.

But Yeltsin also remains very aware of his dependence on the West and also the dependence of his country, an awareness that helps to explain why Moscow has taken such a carefully calibrated action. It also supports the idea that the Russian president was very much involved in the deployment decision.

If the introduction of Russian troops into Pristina had been a rogue action or if it had been the product of a new anti-Western Yeltsin, it might have been both larger and more dramatic than it in fact has proved to be.

Indeed, the Pristina operation appears to reflect a desire to put pressure on the West without taking a step that would totally alienate the leaders of countries to which Moscow still looks for assistance of various kinds.

NATO will certainly seek a compromise that will keep the Russians "on board" as various Western leaders have said. Indeed, precisely because some in Moscow -- including Yeltsin -- have positioned themselves to deny full responsibility, the West may again as it has in the past give Yeltsin credit for backing away from something that he may have been responsible for starting.

And even if that happens -- and the odds of a settlement on this point are probably quite good -- Moscow and Yeltsin undoubtedly assume they will walk away winners, not only by signaling their support of the Serbs but also by underscoring the West's largely self-imposed requirement that Moscow be included in all future discussions about Kosovo.

Consequently, Moscow's pursuit of a third way in this conflict appears likely to bring it far greater benefits than either of the extreme alternatives. And that in turn suggests that Yeltsin, who has practiced this style of politics before, almost certainly is heavily involved in this case as well.