As NATO blocked Russian peacekeeping forces from flying to Kosovo, an alliance delegation arrived here Sunday in a bid to resolve the latest dispute over Russia's role in implementing the Kosovo peace agreement.
Russia had planned to fly some of an expected 3,600 peacekeepers to the region Sunday, but at NATO's urging, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria refused to allow Russian military planes to fly through their airspace. Without their permission, Russian planes would have been forced to fly a prohibitively long and circuitous route to reach Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins said the delegation of NATO military experts had come to Moscow to attempt to work out an agreement on the deployment of the Russian forces. He did not explain what problems had arisen over an accord reached last month by top U.S. and Russian officials.
"I only know that they have come to continue the discussions of the conditions under which the Russian troops enter Kosovo," Collins told NTV television in remarks partially dubbed into Russian. "The principal details have already been agreed upon, but there are many practical details."
Russian Defense Ministry officials denied that there were any "technical" disagreements over the deployment of the peacekeeping forces.
"Such assertions may be qualified as a provocation on the part of the United States," the Interfax news service quoted unidentified defense officials as saying.
After NATO halted its bombing of Yugoslavia last month, Russia antagonized the alliance by rushing in 200 troops from nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina to seize the airport in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, only hours before NATO troops entered the province. Russia, which helped negotiate the Kosovo peace agreement, maintained that it was entitled to its own peacekeeping sector in Kosovo.
NATO has firmly opposed the idea of a Russian sector, arguing that could lead to de facto partition of the province. The alliance retaliated for the Russian move by calling upon its members and allies in Central Europe not to grant Moscow permission to fly in supplies or reinforcements.
After protracted negotiations in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, the dispute apparently was resolved, and top U.S. and Russian officials said they had worked out an agreement that would place Russian forces in NATO sectors headed by the U.S., France, Germany and Britain. There are now about 600 Russian troops in the province.
On Tuesday, Russia flew planes carrying aviation specialists and equipment to Pristina to prepare the airport for further flights. But the agreement apparently unraveled soon after.
U.S. officials sought Sunday to dampen talk of a growing dispute between NATO and Russia, portraying the dispatch of the NATO delegation as a "follow-up" to earlier discussions in Belgium.
A White House spokesman said NATO's supreme commander in Europe, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, decided Saturday to send his military planners to Moscow over the weekend "to get business transacted a little more quickly" than originally planned.
After the discussions between Russian and NATO planners ended abruptly late last week, Western officials had suggested that they would not resume until after the Fourth of July holiday.
But the White House spokesman declared that while Clark had acted to "move the process along a little more quickly," the move "doesn't reflect any sense of urgency."
In Moscow on Sunday, Collins said: "This is a delegation of experts that will work here with Russian military experts. I don't know how long they will be here. I only know that the negotiations will begin tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest."
The Russian Defense Ministry insisted that it had not violated the terms of the Helsinki agreement.
"All details of the location of Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo were documented during the talks held by the defense and foreign ministers in Helsinki," said a Defense Ministry representative, according to Interfax.
Other Russian officials lashed out at former allies Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria for denying the peacekeeping forces an air corridor. The harshest words were reserved for Hungary, which joined NATO this year.
"It is not Hungary's first attempt to complicate Russia's peacekeeping and humanitarian activity in the Balkans," Interfax quoted a high-ranking diplomat as saying. "This position is arousing surprise and regret."
However, most of Russia's peacekeeping troops will travel to the Balkans by sea to save costs for the nation's impoverished military. Many of the paratroops departed Friday by train for a port on the Black Sea to start their voyage.
"The sea variant was chosen for two reasons: First of all, it is cheaper," Airborne Troops commander Gen. Vladimir Shpak told the newspaper Kommersant. "Second, it is a new experience. The airborne troops have never yet traveled to their destination by foreign seas."
In Pristina on Saturday, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. T. V. Johnson, based at the headquarters of the international peacekeepers, had said that no Russian planes would be allowed to land at the airport because the facility needed work. Specifically, he said, lighting needed to be improved for night use.
"They're going to get the airfield up to standards," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, in another sign of the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow has expelled an assistant U.S. Army attache who worked at the American Embassy. The official, Lt. Col. Peter Hoffman, left Russia on Thursday after his diplomatic credentials were lifted. There is no indication that the action was related to Kosovo.
Times staff writers Melissa Healy in Washington and Julie Tamaki in Pristina contributed to this report.