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Russia: Superpower Feels Frustration

  • Floriana Fossato

With the Kosovo crisis now receding, Western officials and media continue to ponder the reasons behind Russia's recent actions in the Balkans. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato suggests that the motivations are actually quite clear.

Moscow, 2 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western analysts pondering Russia's surprise deployment of 200 troops to the Pristina airport on June 12 seem to underestimate the psychological factor in Russian decision-making.

A good example was a recent article in The Washington Post (June 25). The article quotes unnamed senior Western intelligence analysts reconstructing events surrounding the Russian move. The analysts disagree over whether Moscow's intention was to seize a Russian zone in Kosovo, or simply to create a presence on the ground to be used as a bargaining chip in negotiating peacekeeping arrangements.

The Post reported that the analysts were puzzled over "why the Russian military took the risk it did and what role President Boris Yeltsin played in the decision."

Seen from Moscow, these questions seem rather cut off from Russian realities. Most Western reporters posted in Moscow have witnessed over the last eight years a growing level of frustration in all layers of Russian society over the country's role in the world. In short, Russians seem to feel a growing anger over the loss of the main achievement of the Soviet era -- superpower status. The frustration was clear well before the start of NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia and fed the strong reaction that the operation sparked in Russia.

Russian politicians, military officers and the public alike share the frustration. And it is only fed by an economy in disarray and seemingly constant political power intrigues. Regaining a prominent world role is thus of paramount importance for Russia, as the country struggles to find its identity in the post-Soviet world.

Western correspondents in Moscow who listened to Russian acquaintances commenting on the unexpected deployment into Kosovo heard widespread praise for the action, which boosted the country's collective self-esteem, at least for a while. The deployment of troops clearly touched a patriotic chord.

The feeling found expression in an interview in the Russian parliament's official organ "Parlamentskaya Gazeta" published last week. General Georgy Shpak, commander-in-chief of Russia's Airborne Troops, said that, quoting: "acting on the orders of the General Staff, a group of paratroopers on 16 armored personnel carriers and 20 vehicles was prepared in our Bosnian brigade to enter Kosovo as the first detachment. Displaying their ability to get ready for a mission so that nobody noticed anything until it was already too late, our servicemen drove 430 kilometers to the Kosovo border in seven and a half hours."

General Shpak went on to explain that "by being the first to enter the territory of the province, we spoiled NATO's mood. Thousands of reporters had been sent there to report the victorious march of Americans, English, Germans, and French. Instead, all they saw were our servicemen."

Images of their tanks entering Pristina, greeted by Serb civilians, undoubtedly brought back memories for many Russians of documentaries about territories liberated by the Red Army during World War Two.

Several Russian political analysts acknowledge that self-esteem and a desperate attempt to be "part of the game" play a very important role in Russia's foreign policy these days. Analyst Andrei Piontkovsky says that the political reaction to events in Kosovo made clear that Moscow is "interested exclusively in its own elite status in world politics."

Russia's recent past also helps explain something else that western analysts have been pondering -- the apparent tension between Russia's military and civilian leaders. Russia's generals, whose reputation was tarnished by the humiliating experiences of Chechnya and Afghanistan, are openly distrustful of the country's diplomacy and political leaders.

When Russia's special Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated a deal with the West to end the Kosovo crisis, military officers were among his harshest critics. And there were widespread reports of open disagreements between Russian military and civilian officials at talks with western officials on Kosovo.

Our correspondent has witnessed many occasions in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras when military officials seemed uncomfortable with the notion that they serve under civilian authorities. In 1991-92, even parliamentary delegations and Kremlin officials wishing to inspect sensitive military installations faced considerable difficulties obtaining permission from the military.

But even if Russian generals planned the recent move of forces into Kosovo ahead of NATO, it seems unlikely that Yeltsin would not have had the final word on such a sensitive step. Yeltsin cherishes more than anything his role as commander in chief of Russia's military forces.

Russian analysts also say it is unlikely that Yeltsin, just before the G-7 plus Russia summit in Cologne, would have failed to realize how the move could strengthen Russia's hand in negotiations over Kosovo peacekeeping -- and over western help for Russia's economy.

When NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia began, Yeltsin had said that Russia was "morally superior" to the West. After the Pristina operation, Yeltsin announced to the heads of leading industrial nations in Cologne that he was "among friends."