Few events in recent history brought the Russians so much false pride and celebration as the dash to Pristina airport and its occupation in the aftermath of the Kosovo war.
Russian forces moved into the airport during the night without notifying anyone, a few hours ahead of the scheduled NATO deployment of troops. This, after staunch opposition to the war that almost ruined Russia-U.S. relations. It was a colorful stunt, but Russia gained little from it besides alienating much of Western opinion. In fact, it could have led to a Russia-U.S. shooting match.
For months thereafter, Russian generals were given medals, their egos were stoked and endless rounds of self-congratulation were heard in Moscow. Is something similar about to happen in Iraq - not just involving Russia this time, but also certain NATO member countries?
A Russian Army embarrassed by its poverty in the face of the opulence, technical prowess and might of NATO - and especially the United States - took enormous pride in the Pristina dash. TV commentators and newspaper columnists were so euphoric that one might have thought it was the Russians that had won the Balkan conflict, in which they failed to save their Slav brother Slobodan Milosevic from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton's assault. Milosevic is now in The Hague undergoing a long trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Since then, the Russian Army has had to face the ignominy of an embarrassing campaign in its own Chechen republic. Three years after President Vladimir Putin sent troops into this breakaway territory, more than 50,000 people may have died, including some 5,000 servicemen. But that is not all - bomb blasts, ambushes and skirmishes are daily occurrences. Chechen terrorists drove right into the center of Moscow and took a theater full of people hostage. Then, others managed to blow up the headquarters of the Chechen government installed by Moscow in Grozny.
Now, after an impressive military campaign on the part of the Americans and English, the Russians and French want to get back into the game.
According to some sources, there are proposals to do "another Pristina" on the Americans, this time in Baghdad - and on a much larger scale, with many more players involved. And this could be the true subject of the upcoming summit between U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russia, Germany and France in St. Petersburg.
This time, Annan, himself feeling marginalized by the United States, could offer the white-painted aircraft and infrastructure of his organization as the Trojan Horse to deliver Russian and French forces to Baghdad and other key Iraqi cities.
If it works, without firing a shot, just as in Afghanistan, Russia would achieve a considerable strategic victory. It would be a diplomatically daring, rather underhanded but smart move to protect Russian interests in postwar Iraq. If this course of action is decided upon, the French and Germans are also likely to go along and sponsor its daring goals.
Naturally, just as the United States and Britain did when they named their war "Iraqi Freedom," Russians appreciate that such an operation must be done under the cover of a humanitarian effort.
Even if the United Nations is marginalized in its role in Iraq, it is unlikely that it will be excluded from distributing rations to the Iraqi people. And what is there to stop Annan from requesting security from Russia and France?
A move into Baghdad to provide humanitarian assistance would bring even more public and international support to the troika of Russia, France and Germany than their opposition to a UN Security Council resolution legitimizing the war has already garnered.
Arab countries would also welcome the presence of countries that had opposed the invasion.
We may be about to see a new, almost-unprecedented geopolitical move. The war may almost be over, but the games are just beginning.