Russian paratroops are set to fly to Kosovo today after talks between NATO and military officials here Monday resolved a last-minute dispute over Russia's role in the Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR.
It took 11 hours of negotiations over two days at the Russian Defense Ministry to end the deadlock that prompted NATO to stop Russian forces from flying to the provincial capital, Pristina, on Sunday as planned.
NATO's move to delay the Russian deployment highlighted the tensions between Russia and the alliance, with Moscow still simmering over NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
Russian Defense Ministry officials announced the agreement Monday with the NATO military delegation led by German army Gen. Dieter Stoeckmann, chief of staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. A NATO official in Brussels confirmed the deal, saying "in theory, they [the Russians] could start deploying overnight."
"Things came to a head over the weekend because the Russians were already deploying, and maybe deploying quicker than anticipated by some NATO countries," the official said. "Maybe it was underestimated how quickly they were ready to go."
A Russian Defense Ministry statement said the talks here Sunday and Monday had paved the way for 3,600 Russian peacekeeping troops to play an "effective and fruitful" role in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.
The Russian side was otherwise vague about the deal. However, North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said it confirmed the terms of an agreement reached in Helsinki, Finland, last month on Russia's role in the 50,000-strong KFOR.
NATO's concern was that the Russians were trying to reinterpret the Helsinki deal in order to expand the area their peacekeepers would patrol and to reduce NATO's authority over them. These issues led NATO to block the planned Sunday departure of two Russian transport planes, which were to carry 120 peacekeepers to Kosovo, by arranging for Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to deny the Russians permission to fly through their airspace.
Last month, tensions between NATO and Russia flared when 200 Russian troops from nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina seized Pristina's airport before NATO troops arrived in Kosovo, a move that staggered NATO commanders and further undermined trust between the sides. Lengthy negotiations in Helsinki were required to iron out the problem.
Confirming Monday's deal, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, said in Brussels that Russia had wanted to expand into the Italian sector in Kosovo but that the deal does not allow this. In comments reported by Associated Press, he added that the Russians would not be forced to pursue and arrest suspected war criminals, because this would contradict Russian law.
NATO officials said a clinching element of the deal was an agreement that two battalions of Russian paratroops--about 1,000 men--could be deployed in the German-controlled zone of southwest Kosovo. The number of battalions had been vaguely given as one or two in the Helsinki accord.
"To us, the German sector looked like it could only absorb one battalion," the NATO official in Brussels explained. "The Russians apparently feel there are certain Serb areas there they are concerned about. The Germans were worried they couldn't absorb that many Russians."
Playing down the disagreement Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said the talks with NATO had focused on such "practical questions" as how the KFOR chain of command would operate day to day.
"Today all the necessary requests have been sent for the passage of our planes with Russian peacekeepers who have been waiting for the last few days. We are counting on getting this permission tomorrow if not today, and they will be able to fly to Kosovo," Ivanov said late Monday in a televised interview.
Other Russian paratroops will travel to Kosovo by train and ship, partly to save the poverty-stricken Russian army money.
At the airport in Pristina on Monday, a pair of Russian soldiers stood guard near the southwest entrance, where a tank was parked not far from a roadblock.
Less than a mile down the road, another pair of Russian soldiers stood guard at the facility's main military entrance.
They allowed visitors access to British troops stationed on the other side of the checkpoint but made it clear that nobody was allowed to visit the Russian base, on the northern side of the airport.
Russian troops have assumed management functions at the airport, while their British counterparts handle flight operations, a KFOR spokesman said during a Monday news conference. The last flight to land at the airport touched down more than a week ago.
One of the Russian soldiers at the southeast entrance, who identified himself only as Dmitri, said that perhaps more Russian troops would arrive today at the airport.
When asked what he thought of the ongoing controversy between his country and NATO officials, he replied: "It's all politics."
Dixon reported from Moscow and Dahlburg from Paris. Times staff writer Julie Tamaki in Pristina contributed to this report.