RUSSIA PREPARING ITS PEACEKEEPERS FOR A MISSION TO IRAQ

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Moscow is withdrawing its soldiers from the Balkan Peninsula in order to focus on solving problems in Iraq. It is not ruled out that Russian military contingents from Kosovo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina will be sent to the Middle East, where they will take part in humanitarian actions under the aegis of the UN. Sources in the Russian Defense Ministry do not rule out that this will really happen, taking into account the Kremlin’s decision to withdraw Russian peacekeepers from the Balkans within two months.

One of officers commented on the situation as follows: “Russia cannot afford to disperse its troops throughout the world.” He noted that the Balkan operation was not profitable for Russia from the very beginning. This is why Anatoly Kvashnin, Chief of the General Staff, stated on April 10 that the withdrawal of troops would contribute to the Defense Ministry’s financial stability. He noted that the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping contingent from the Balkans does not mean that Russia’s presence in this region will end. According to Kvashnin, representatives of the Interior Ministry will remain in the region.

Russia spent $26.9 million a year on the maintenance of the peacekeeping contingent in the Balkans. The chief of the General Staff noted that this money would be spent on other needs. Russia has already sent an official notice to NATO, and Moscow and Brussels are now discussing the schedule of the withdrawal, which will take one to two months. Meanwhile, the chief of the General Staff did not specify how the money saved after the withdrawal of peacekeepers from the republics of former Yugoslavia would be spent. He has not confirmed that Russian troops will be sent to Iraq either.

In the meantime, the Russian military says unofficially that such development of events is most probable. Several circumstances testify to this. For instance, the fact that Anatoly Kvashnin held a press conference is strange in itself. As is known, the chief of the General Staff meets with journalists very seldom.

In addition, such important statements are to be made by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. To all appearances, Ivanov (who visited South Korea and Japan) did not know the leadership made a decision to withdraw peacekeepers from former Yugoslavia. This is why Kvashnin had to announce this political decision.

It should be noted that Kvashnin’s statement almost coincided with statements made at a meeting of the Russian, French, and German leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg. As is known, Vladimir Putin stated on April 10, “The situation, which we face in Iraq, must be solved in accordance with the UN’s laws as soon as possible”. It is evident that the Russian leader implied the formula of the settlement of crises in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and more. It is not ruled out that Russia will be able to take part in solving the Iraqi crisis according to these principles.

Moscow has only a few interests in the Balkans, and expenses on the maintenance of a peacekeeping contingent are very high, though the 2003 budget allocates money for peacekeeping operations. In other words, the Russian leadership did not intend to withdraw troops from former Yugoslavia when preparing the nation’s financial plan. The fact that NATO had not been informed beforehand shows that a decision to withdraw the contingent was made all of a sudden.

Lierre Lellouche, deputy secretary of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA), stated on April 10: “I was not convinced by arguments of the Russian leadership regarding the necessity of withdrawing peacekeepers from Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Kosovo.” According to Mr. Lellouche, Russia feels “after-pains” because NATO intervened into the situation in Kosovo without its approval in 1999 and because Russia did not take part in making decisions (regarding military activities in Kosovo and the strategy and future of Kosovo and Bosnia). Mr. Lellouche noted that Kosovo’s future has not been determined yet. According to him, Kosovo is “an uninhabited land”. Theoretically, this is Yugoslavian territory; demographically, this is another state. In addition, he said that before Russia planned to send its contingent for a long time.

Mr. Lellouche noted: “Russia decided to show its isolation from this process by withdrawing its troops.” He is disappointed in a decision made by the Russian leadership because he thinks that it is more preferable that Europeans (not Americans) take part in the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. In addition, he thinks, “Long-term cooperation between Russia and the European Union could develop precisely in Kosovo but Russia decided to leave”.

He also reminded that the EU’s troops replaced NATO’s troops in Macedonia ten years ago. The same will happen in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Russian military-diplomatic sources commented on the situation as follows: “By severing its military relations with NATO in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Moscow is preparing for a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East. At the same time it is too early to officially announce a decision to send our peacekeepers to Iraq because the US and the UK ignore Moscow’s demands that the situation be settled according to the UN’s plans. However, our opinion must be taken in consideration.” Russian military-diplomatic sources also noted that “it is very likely that the US will not ignore Russia’s position” after the Russian leadership’s contacts with Condoleezza Rice and US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Analysts of the General Staff think that Russia’s military activities in the Middle East must bring in economic results.

The General Staff noted that the Ground Force has not stopped preparing soldiers for possible humanitarian missions (the Russian Army’s peacekeeping reserve consists of 20,000 servicemen – two divisions).

The fact that warships of the Russian Navy carrying marines have already headed to the Arabian Sea is an indirect confirmation of the possibility of sending peacekeeping groups to Iraq. However, Sergei Ivanov denies that the Russian military will be involved in the conflict.

The minister said: “It should be noted that it would take a month to get to Iraq by sea. Everything will be finished by that time.”

The war will surely end. After that Iraq will need international peacekeeping troops, which will support the new political government in the country. The Russian Defense Ministry has not yet denied this fact.

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