Partners in peacekeeping

Alexander Nikitin assesses the Russian experience of participating in NATO-led peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.

Brothers in arms: The precedent of political and military cooperation between former adversaries was extremely powerful (© Crown Copyright)

One of the most challenging aspects of the international intervention in the former Yugoslavia has been the relationship between NATO and Russia. Despite a series of political disagreements, Russian peacekeepers served alongside their NATO peers for eight-and-a-half years with the common goal of building stability in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo. This experience was generally positive and will likely be relevant in future operations.

Russia withdrew its peacekeepers from both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the summer of 2003. At the time, Moscow argued that the objectives of the deployment had essentially been achieved, while expressing reservations about the impartiality of the NATO-led operation in Kosovo. This withdrawal followed more than a decade of a continuous military presence in the former Yugoslavia, beginning with deployment of a contingent in Croatia in the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in 1992 and covering most of the UN-mandated missions during the next 11 years.

The size of the Russian military presence in the former Yugoslavia changed over the years. It grew from 900 soldiers in 1992 to 1,500 in 1994 in UNPROFOR in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, was around 1,340 in the Implementation Force (IFOR) and Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1996, with an additional 1,500 in the Kosovo Force (KFOR) from 1999. Given the actual size of these forces - IFOR consisted of 60,000 soldiers - the Russian troops were not decisive to the success of these missions. But since Russia provided the largest non-NATO contingent to the Alliance-led operations, the Russian contribution was certainly significant.

If IFOR, SFOR and KFOR are viewed as falling within the broad tradition of UN-mandated peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations, Russian participation in them is not exceptional. After all, the Soviet Union had contributed military observers to UN missions on various continents during the preceding decades. If, however, they are viewed as a new form of political-military intervention in which NATO, operating under a UN mandate, leads an international coalition, then Russian participation must be considered a new departure. For Moscow, as well as for Washington and Brussels, the decision to deploy a Russian brigade in IFOR was not taken simply to help rebuild stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but has to be seen within the context of relations between Russia and the West in the post-Cold War era.

The precedent of political and military cooperation between former adversaries, who had trained for decades to fight each other, was extremely powerful. Moreover, Moscow chose to operate in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo in an even-handed way, rather than siding with the Serbs, where most Russian sympathies lay. Clearly, these sympathies did not disappear, but they were curbed in the same way as the Albanian, Croatian and Muslim sympathies of some NATO nations.

Practical cooperation between NATO and Russia in the former Yugoslavia has proved especially useful in building interoperability between forces

The decision to contribute forces to the NATO-led operations in the former Yugoslavia was exceptional since it involved a reallocation of military, economic and diplomatic resources away from operations in which Russia had a more obvious interest. These included operations in Chechnya, an integral part of Russia, and Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Moreover, at the time, Moscow was less than enamoured with Alliance policies, firstly as a result of NATO enlargement and secondly because of the Alliance's decision to launch air strikes against Yugoslavia without UN Security Council authorisation.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Russian brigade was deployed in the Multinational Division North (MND North), together with a Turkish brigade, a combined Nordic brigade including contingents from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Poland and Sweden, and the bulk of US forces. The Russian brigade, which consisted of airborne troops, had an area of responsibility of 1,750 square kilometres, including 75 kilometres of the inter-entity boundary line, the line running between the two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. Moreover, some 20 Russian officers were assigned to the MND North Command. The firepower of the Russian peacekeepers in the NATO-led operations was greater than it had been between 1992 and 1995, though it was never fully used. Russian casualties - four dead and eleven wounded - were primarily victims of land mines.

Command arrangements

The structure and chain of command in IFOR and SFOR were problematic for Russia, since they were extremely NATO-centric. This was in contrast to the arrangements governing other UN-mandated operations in which Russia had a strong voice and the military side of the mission was subordinate to the political side. The solution that was eventually found involved the appointment at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) of a Russian general as a Special Deputy to NATO's highest-ranking officer, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), responsible for coordinating with SACEUR all matters concerning Russia's participation in IFOR and then SFOR.

In this way, Russian peacekeepers in MND North received their orders and instructions from SACEUR through his Russian Deputy, but were under the tactical command of MND North for day-to-day operations. The Russian general, who had a staff of five officers, worked out strategic and operational issues with SACEUR. Meanwhile, the commander of the Russian brigade on the ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina coordinated day-to-day operations with the US general commanding MND North. The terms of Russia's participation in KFOR were slightly different. Russian peacekeepers were dispersed throughout Kosovo and the Russian general at SHAPE, in addition to being a Special Deputy to SACEUR responsible for Russian participation in SFOR, was also the representative of the Russian Defence Ministry for Russian KFOR matters.

Despite effective cooperation on the ground in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, many Russians remained suspicious of the Alliance's ultimate intentions, viewing the entire exercise in terms of its impact on Russia. These attitudes, very much the legacy of Cold War zero-sum thinking, reflected poor understanding among most Russians of NATO's transformation and an enduring image of the Alliance as a Western military machine designed to wage war.

The relative success of NATO's peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* failed to impress either the Russian public or policy-makers. This was in part because NATO's actions were generally viewed as being biased against the Serbs. In part, it was because NATO contravened international law when it launched an air campaign against Yugoslavia. And in part, it was because NATO appeared far more effective using force than trying to build peace, thereby confirming Russian prejudices about the militaristic and aggressive nature of the Alliance.

Many Russian policy-makers had high expectations of NATO's transformation but were disappointed when the anticipated shift from collective defence to collective security failed to materialise. Russians had hoped that the Alliance would change the relative emphasis it put on military preparations in favour of a more multifaceted approach to security, including conflict prevention, mediation and peace-building, in which the use of force was just a last resort in a wider conflict-management arsenal.

To be fair, NATO has moved some way towards developing a more multifaceted approach to security. Indeed, the peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations in the former Yugoslavia and more recently the post-conflict stabilisation mission in Afghanistan are all illustrative of how the Alliance has transformed itself since the end of the Cold War. But it has not evolved into a true collective-security organisation because of the selective nature of both its membership and its decision-making. Unlike the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO does not include all European countries. It ignores conflicts between or within Alliance members. And it intervenes in certain conflicts, while leaving others to fester.

Kosovo crisis

Intervention in Kosovo was, from the Russian perspective, illustrative of the Alliance's selective approach to security. In response to the launch of the NATO air campaign, Moscow froze all NATO-Russia military and political cooperation, including the Permanent Joint Council, withdrew its peacekeepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina from the NATO command structure and expelled the NATO information office. The disagreement was over who has the right to act on behalf of the international community, the circumstances under which intervention was legitimate and the limits to that intervention.

For Russia, the Alliance was in violation of the UN Charter and therefore acting illegally when it launched coercive military action against a sovereign state in the absence of a specific mandate from the UN Security Council. The humanitarian justification for the intervention was dubious since genocide had not been established by recognised OSCE or UN mechanisms and the refugee exodus was greater after the beginning of the campaign than before. Moreover, NATO was creating a dangerous precedent by failing to exhaust diplomatic means of resolving the conflict before resorting to force and ignoring Chinese, Indian and Russian objections.

To be sure, Russia was not only reacting to events in the former Yugoslavia, but also to the way it believed it was being marginalised in terms of decision-making on key issues of European security. In principle, Moscow did not rule out the use of force in Kosovo and had no vested interest in the conflict nor particular sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic. The issue was simply the rules and procedures concerning the decision to use force and the need to exhaust all diplomatic options, including political and economic sanctions, beforehand. As soon as consensus was reached in the United Nations and a UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo adopted - 11 weeks after the beginning of the air campaign - the Russian military rushed to participate in the international peacekeeping operation, which had a UN mandate.

The speed of the Russian deployment in Kosovo probably surprised NATO. Russian peacekeepers travelled south from Bosnia and Herzegovina across Serbia to Pristina airport where they met NATO forces advancing northwards from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* The ensuing stand-off illustrated the importance of coordination in such operations and the need for political unity among coalition participants. Despite this incident, NATO and Russia managed to re-establish effective cooperation in peacekeeping during the next four years. Moreover, after the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in May 2002, a NATO-Russia Working Group on Peacekeeping was formed to analyse the experience from the former Yugoslavia and develop a Generic Concept of Joint NATO-Russia Peacekeeping Operations.

While traditionally Russia has looked to either the OSCE or the United Nations as the primary organisations dealing with conflict resolution and been sceptical of NATO's peacekeeping aspirations, it has come to recognise the need for the more muscular, peace-enforcement capabilities that the Alliance can provide. Indeed, Moscow can certainly envisage the Alliance being employed to lead military operations within the framework of a UN mandate. During the past decade Russian ambitions for the OSCE have been scaled back, but Moscow still looks to the United Nations as the focal point for political coordination of peacekeeping efforts.

The practical cooperation between NATO and Russia in the former Yugoslavia has proved especially useful in terms of building interoperability between forces, which, in turn, has contributed to the development of the Generic Concept of Joint NATO-Russian Peacekeeping Operations mentioned above. In the future, it should be possible to upgrade NATO-Russia peacekeeping from practical interaction in the field to political and operational planning of joint conflict-resolution efforts.

The NATO-Russia relationship that developed in the course of the best part of a decade of joint peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia clearly experienced highs and lows. In the process, some opportunities were missed, but much was also achieved. However, given the need for this kind of mission, it is in the interest of both NATO and Russia to continue to work together to provide the United Nations with effective peacekeeping instruments. It is surely only a question of time, therefore, before NATO and Russian peacekeepers are again cooperating in the field.

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