- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Russian President Vladimir Putin, heading home after his first meeting with President Bush, made an unscheduled stop yesterday in Kosovo, where he harshly criticized NATO commanders who call the shots for some 3,000 Russian peacekeeping troops.

The first Russian president to visit Yugoslavia since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin was balancing a desire to reassert Russia´s interests in the Balkans with his professed willingness to work with the Western alliance.

"We came here to see what kind of cooperation exists, what kinds of problems exist here and how to address and resolve those problems," he said in brief comments before departing for Moscow.

Mr. Putin arrived in Yugoslavia late Saturday direct from his summit in neighboring Slovenia with Mr. Bush. Although he and Mr. Bush discussed the region´s problems broadly, Mr. Putin said, "We did not touch in detail on any specific issues."

That was not the case in Belgrade, where Mr. Putin and Yugoslavia´s new pro-democracy leader, President Vojislav Kostunica, criticized NATO and the U.N. administrators who have run Kosovo since NATO´s 1999 bombing campaign drove Yugoslav authorities out.

"Wrong moves" by the international community have "destabilized the entire region," Mr. Kostunica said.

Instead of then flying back to Moscow as announced, Mr. Putin went to Kosovo, where he handed out medals to Russian peacekeepers and met with Danish Lt. Gen. Thorstein Skiaker, the commander of the NATO-led force, and U.N. officials.

His flight was announced at the last minute because of security concerns in the province, where ethnic Albanians view Russia as pro-Serbian because of historic ties between the two Slavic nations.

A source who was at the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described Mr. Putin as "very critical" of the 45,000-strong peacekeeping force´s performance.

Russia has been pushing for NATO to do more to disarm ethnic Albanian extremists who have been attacking the remaining Serbs in Kosovo and contributing to clashes with government troops in neighboring Macedonia.

"We discussed with him in quite frank terms … should we be confident in going forward because some things are going wrong, or should we be confident in going forward because some things are going right," said Jeremy Greenstock, British ambassador to the United Nations.

Since taking office, Mr. Putin has sought to strengthen Russia´s role in areas of former influence like the Balkans, where the West holds increasing sway through the presence of NATO troops.

But the assertiveness sometimes bumps against a desire not to be left out.

Even though he voiced deep apprehension at his summit with Mr. Bush over NATO expanding toward Russia´s borders, Mr. Putin recently revived Russian participation in its Partnership for Peace program.

Although Russia has cultural, religious and historic ties to Yugoslavia´s Serbian and Montenegrin populations, it was critical of former President Slobodan Milosevic´s "ethnic cleansing" campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Russia opposed the 1999 NATO bombing campaign yet played a large diplomatic role in persuading Mr. Milosevic to accept the terms of the U.N. resolution ending it.

Once the bombs stopped in June 1999, the Russians then flew into Kosovo before any NATO troops and quickly took control of the airport near Pristina.

After days of negotiations, Russian and U.S. representatives reached a compromise that allowed them to keep control of the airport and have some flexibility in defining their mission but not their own sector to patrol, as they had wanted.

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