NATO, Russia unite on a strategy

A compromise plan for a Kosovo settlement brings in Serbia's big ally.

NATO and Russia have combined their diplomatic clout in an attempt to resolve the Kosovo crisis, hoping to force President Slobodan Milosevic to accept an armed peacekeeping force and save their own stagnating strategies.

The initiative is embodied in a statement of principles for a settlement (page 8) issued yesterday by the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan - and Russia.

Notably absent from the statement is a previous Russian position calling for a halt to NATO bombing as part of any settlement - a signal that Moscow may be exasperated with the Yugoslav leader.

"Given that [special Russian envoy Viktor] Chernomyrdin's last trip to Belgrade produced zero, they are not willing to go to the mat for the guy," says one US official.

Russia also appears to have come around to NATO's demand that a well-armed peace-keeping force be deployed to enforce any settlement and protect returning refugees. But the US also appears to have compromised to secure the cooperation of Moscow, which up until now has been Belgrade's only major supporter.

The absence of key details in the statement of principles - the exact composition of the armed peacekeeping contingent and timetables for a withdrawal of Serbian forces and a halt to NATO airstrikes - will necessitate negotiations with Belgrade, something that the US has vowed not to do.

The lack of those timetables also holds out the possibility that should Mr. Milosevic signal his readiness to negotiate on the basis of the principles, NATO's bombing campaign that began March 24 could be put on hold before all Serbian troops, police, and paramilitary gangs are withdrawn from Kosovo.

The US has previously insisted that it would only stop the airstrikes once a withdrawal was complete.

An offer Milosevic can't refuse?

"Are we going to stop the bombing before every single one of them is out? My hunch is yes," says the US official. "What we are looking at is a proposal that Milosevic will find pretty hard to turn down."

Furthermore, the Clinton administration is accepting Moscow's insistence that any peace operation be placed under the auspices of the United Nations, a demand that Milosevic has also made.

American officials deny they are making any compromises, saying the principles in effect reflect the basic demands NATO set forth last month.

What's at stake for Russia

For Russian President Boris Yeltsin, facing a growing challenge to his power, a diplomatic success in the Balkans is crucial. It would also reaffirm Moscow's position as a leading international power. But Milosevic's refusal to listen is rapidly exhausting whatever influence and patience Moscow has with Belgrade, confronting it with a major diplomatic failure.

"Russia has shifted over the past few weeks from 100 percent support for Milosevic to the position of an honest broker," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the liberal Moscow-based think tank, the Center for Strategic Studies. "It is clear to everyone that this position brings Russia far more economic and political dividends."

"[President Boris] Yeltsin also found that his strong support for Serbia at the beginning of the war brought tough protests from our Russian Muslim republics, like Tatarstan and Bashkortistan, which raised real divisions within the Russian Federation itself," he continued. "So it was obvious that stubbornly siding with Milosevic would lead Russia into dangerous confrontation with the West and the Islamic world, and also worsen domestic tensions. It was not a winning approach."

"Acting as a real mediator and working for an honest diplomatic settlement was clearly in the best interests of Russia. And, by the way, we also proved to be good friends to Yugoslavia. We helped to forge the best compromise Milosevic can hope to get - these principles contain things he wants, such as affirmation of Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo and disarmament of the KLA - so we have fulfilled our duties as a friendly state."

A major unknown is how the initiative will sit with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which has been fighting for independence from Serbia.

'Leaving us out'

The KLA signed a NATO-designed accord in March, agreeing to remain a part of Yugoslavia for three years, albeit protected by NATO, with self-rule for the province and with the promise of a referendum on Kosovo's ultimate status, including independence.

But some KLA leaders have renounced the accord since Milosevic launched his "ethnic cleansing" onslaught. Some KLA officials say they will now accept nothing less than independence. "They are leaving us out. They are trying to come up with a quick fix that won't work," says an influential KLA operative.

Also a potential problem are radical elements in Yugoslavia, which, if unleashed, could derail an agreement.

*Contributing to this report was Fred Weir in Moscow.

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