In a show of protest against NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, the Russian government last week pulled out of a major US-led NATO computer and communications exercise that is intended to help allies develop communications systems capable of sharing information on the battlefield.
Navy Captain Arthur T. Cooper, deputy J-6 for the US European Command, said the details of the negotiations are highly classified, but he added that the Russian decision not to participate in the exercise, Combined Endeavour '99, came "at the last minute".
The exercise, which began on May 6 in Baumholder, Germany a town near Ramstein Air Base, is intended to standardise communications technology used by various allied militaries around the world. The exercise stems from the Partnership for Peace, a NATO program begun in 1994 to increase political and military cooperation throughout Europe.
In Washington, DC, last month, NATO held the PFP Simulation Network Demonstration, which linked six multinational command posts through a global simulation network. The exercise, like a field exercise, tested the ability of participants to respond to scenarios that might occur in a battle.
This year, 30 nations are taking part in the Combined Endeavour exercise, including, for the first time, Switzerland and Austria, as well as the US Marines.
The Russian decision not to participate is "a big blow" to the exercise, Cooper said. "There was a very strong argument in Russia on whether or not they should come."
NATO especially is disappointed about the Russian absence because unlike previous exercises, Combined Endeavour '99 includes enough communications equipment and personnel to support up to six multinational divisions. Russia was expected to bring a suite of Russian communications equipment that had never been used outside its own country, Cooper said. "It would have been great to tie that in," he said.
Observers said the timing of the Russian decision is particularly troublesome, given the increasing likelihood that ground troops may be introduced soon in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo to enforce a peace settlement.
Many of the nations taking part in or observing Combined Endeavour, including Macedonia and Albania, are deeply involved in the escalating crisis in Kosovo and could use the exercise to iron out the details of how to communicate and share information with US forces and each other before actually going into combat.
"Interoperability must mean being able to talk to your allies and coalition partners," Cooper said. "If we don't start spending money to be able to do that, [we're] really short-changing ourselves."
Daniel Smith, a retired Army colonel who serves as chief of research at the Centre for Defense Information, said Russia's lack of involvement could jeopardise communication between Russia and NATO if the two powers end up occupying parts of the former republic of Yugoslavia as part of a peace settlement.
"It's going to eat into time, efficiency, manpower and could well cost some lives simply because of miscommunication or missed communication," Smith said. "Even if you divided Kosovo, you've still got to have the interfaces between the forces.... If this [type of exercise] doesn't go forward sometime soon, it's going to set back the ability to communicate."
He said if Russians and NATO troops occupy Yugoslavia, they may have to spend critical time finetuning their communications networks - eliminating bugs and glitches in information and voice networks.
But Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said backing out of a joint military exercise can be used simply as a diplomatic tool to show displeasure and is not likely to have lasting consequences.
"Cancelling exercises is the kind of thing that is relatively cost-free," he said. "A lot of times, this is really diplomacy using military forces as pawns."