Russia is preparing to withdraw its troops from the Balkans.
Its Defense Ministry has yet to announce a timeline, but NATO officials say Russia has followed up its exit announcement from earlier this month with plans to see the decision through.
Peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo meanwhile promise that the region will remain safe. And, at least in the case of Bosnia, the withdrawal of the Russians will not cause other countries to send in more troops.
“We’re going to reorganize internally to make sure no vacuum is created, and we’ll be able to carry out our mandate,” said Capt. Dale MacEackern, a Canadian officer and spokesman for peacekeepers in Bosnia. He said he expected the Russians to leave within the next few months, and that they would be missed.
“They’ve made a significant contribution while they’ve been here,” MacEackern said.
In Kosovo, headquarters did not offer any specifics.
“They’re talking about the date of withdrawal at a tactical level, [but] we at yet don’t have an official announcement,” said Capt. Roberto Mascia, the Italian deputy spokesman in Pristina for the international forces. “The point is, for sure, that there will be a withdrawal, but it will be in a cooperative way.”
Mascia said he did not know how commanders in Kosovo would rearrange troops. There are now 320 Russian soldiers in Bosnia and 650 in Kosovo.
The withdrawal, announced earlier this month, isn’t necessarily unusual. But it spotlights the continuing caravan rolling out of the region, which splashed ice water on the face of the West at the height of its post-Cold War euphoria.
The world, it turned out, was still a tangle of thorns.
In 1995, about 60,000 international troops tramped into Bosnia after the ending of that country’s civil war; that number has dwindled to 17,000. In 1999, about 50,000 troops set up camp in Kosovo; these days, there are still about 32,000.
Russia joined the latter mission by shoving its boot in the door: Though it played the diplomatic role in helping secure a peace deal with Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo, it bitterly opposed the NATO war. Rebel ethnic Albanians even accused Russian fighters of aiding the Serbs.
When NATO troops did roll in, Russians seized the airport near Pristina, provoking an awkward standoff with an alliance that wanted the airfield as a headquarters. Eventually, though, the Russians agreed to serve in Kosovo under NATO.
Earlier this month, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that the bear’s rationale for exiting the Balkans was partly financial, partly political. There is no threat of war in the Balkans, a Defense Ministry official announced, and the rubles spent in the former Yugoslavia could be better used at home. The official also said that Russia went in to Kosovo to protect Serbs, but too few Serbs remained in the province to justify staying.
One expert said it’s also an about-face on how Russians feel about Western intentions in the region.
“They feel the Balkans are generally safe in the hands of the Americans and Western European military forces,” said Nicholas Whyte, Europe program director for the International Crisis Group in Brussels. “It’s not surprising the Russians have chosen this moment to disengage.”
Others aren’t as optimistic that the move reflects trust.
“I think any action these days, given what’s going on in Iraq, has to be at least contemplated as a protest to American policy,” said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. “… They simply don’t see how the mission in the Balkans enhances their own security interests, even at the expense of relations with NATO or the United States.”
MacEackern said the Russians had talked of leaving before the Iraq crisis began. Either way, they now exit after making marked impressions upon their American counterparts. Some U.S. troops in Kosovo have complained of working with drunken or belligerent Russians. Other times, the Russians amazed the Yanks with testosterone stunts.
During last year’s Victory Day festivities — which in Russia celebrate the end of World War II — Russian troops in Bosnia broke bricks and bottles with their heads and bit off the extremities of still-croaking frogs. The pictures weren’t pretty.
Spokesmen say that most of the time, though, the Russians did the same tasks as their NATO counterparts: checking vehicles, patrolling villages, seizing weapons. This year, a Russian-led operation netted 3,500 pounds of weapons and explosives in Bosnia.
“They’re very professional in their work, and they’re very helpful to the NATO mission,” said U.S. Army Maj. Jeff Coverdale, spokesman for peacekeepers in northern Bosnia. “Dealing with them is like dealing with any of our soldiers.”
The United States, too, is expected to continue drawing down troops in the Balkans. America keeps 4,000 troops in Kosovo now, and about 1,200 in Bosnia. The Bush administration has pledged to leave only when NATO does. During his campaign, however, President Bush said he planned to pull troops out entirely. European Union leaders have criticized the United States for its new emphasis even farther east.
“The situation is calmer than it was, but it shouldn’t be a signal that people should get out,” Whyte said.
Cato’s Preble, however, thinks the United States should follow the Russian caravans out of what was once Yugoslavia.
“We should have withdrawn years ago,” Preble said. “Frankly, we shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place. This should have been handled by the Europeans.”