As NATO missiles and bombs rain down on Yugoslavia, the defensive strategy of President Slobodan Milosevic appears to be one of playing for time.
The goal of the United States-led attacks is to pummel the Yugoslav military until Mr. Milosovich halts onslaughts against ethnic Albanians in Serbia's seccessionst Kosovo province.
But he may be calculating that he can hold out long enough for protests led by China and Russia and reservations among Western publics and politicians to force NATO to end its campaign.
That strategy seemed to be confirmed by a decision by the Yugoslav military not to expose its precious antiaircraft defenses to retaliation during the first round of NATO strikes.
"There was not a lot of air defense fire," said top NATO commander US Gen. Wesley Clark yesterday. "We know the enemy has formidable defenses. We just did not see them last night."
Yet after months of indecision and feuding over the Kosovo crisis, NATO members - with the exception of Greece and Italy - appear determined to persevere in their greatest challenge since the end of the cold war.
"It's been striking how unity and resolve have really firmed up," says a European diplomat.
Much is at stake for the 19-member alliance as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary at a Washington summit next month that will also set its course for the next century.
A success in Kosovo would reaffirm NATO as the keystone of transatlantic security. Failure would undermine its cohesion, raise doubts about its future, and undermine US leadership in a major blow to President Clinton's foreign-policy legacy.
NATO considers airstrikes a success
In Brussels, General Clark declared a success the first round of strikes by allied aircraft and cruise missiles fired by ships in the Adriatic Sea. Some 40 targets were struck across Yugoslavia. In addition to military bases in and around Belgrade and the Kosovo provincial capital of Pristina, they included Red Star, a key arms factory in the central town of Kraguljevac, and an aircraft plant in the Belgrade suburb of Pancevo.
The operation "will be as long and as difficult as President Milosevic wants it to be," says Clark.
The government of Serbia, which with Montenegro comprises the remnants of Yugoslavia, said 10 civilians died; the Yugoslav army reported 10 soldiers killed and 38 wounded. But it reaffirmed its resolve to resist, declaring that "the effects of the mass actions of the aviation and cruise missiles were minimal" and "morale has been maintained."
The strikes reflect Mr. Clinton's stated goal of "degrading" Milosevic's ability "to make war" against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and averting a humanitarian disaster that could plunge the region into turmoil.
"All the ingredients for a major war are there," he said in a televised address Wednesday night explaining the NATO attacks. "That is why we have to act now."
NATO states reiterated that the strikes would stop if Milosevic relented. "There's ample diplomatic channels for President Milosevic to send the message," says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
The airstrikes come after months of US-led diplomacy failed to end a year of fighting in Kosovo pitting ethnic Albanian rebels against Serbian forces using tactics that have included massacres.
More than 2,000 people are believed dead, most of them civilians. Some 400,000 ethnic Albanians - almost a quarter of the 2 million-strong majority - have been displaced, and thousands of refugees are now showing up in surrounding states.
Many Serbian civilians have fled into Serbia proper to escape attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels.
Belgrade redoubled an offensive by some 40,000 troops and police after ethnic Albanian leaders, including a KLA official, last week signed a US-drafted peace plan that denies them their goal of independence.
Despite the NATO airstrike threat, however, Milosevic rejected the plan, objecting to its enforcement by NATO peacekeeping troops and the degree of self-rule it would give Kosovo.
Kosovo is cherished by Serbs as the centuries-old birthplace of their nation. Milosevic exploited that reverence in revoking its autonomy in 1989 and imposing tough rule to which the ethnic Albanians first responded with peaceful noncooperation. But in doing so, he lit the Serbian nationalism that ignited wars in Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1992 and left a Yugoslav federation of only Serbia and Montenegro.
Milosevic's defiance of the airstrikes, the first attack on a sovereign state by NATO since its founding, has won him new acclaim at home and the sympathy of governments worldwide.
Anger from China and Russia
Facing their own domestic security threats, Russia and China are leading protests over what they condemn as illegal interference in Yugoslavia's internal affairs because NATO lacks the approval of the United Nations.
"We appeal for an immediate end to the airstrikes," Chinese President Jiang Zemin was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose forces pursued a Kosovo-style drive against rebels in Chechnya, declared: "Morally, we are above America."
Milosevic may also draw encouragement from Greece's refusal to participate and the lukewarn support of Italy, whose Prime Minister D'Alema Massimo, suggested the attacks stop to permit a new diplomatic initiative.
"The first military action by NATO had significant results," he said in Rome. "I think therefore that the time to give politics and diplomacy their say is approaching." His statement that the Serbian offensive in Kosovo had stopped was at variance with NATO reports that it was continuing.
But Milosevic's apparent strategy could easily backfire. The broad public support he enjoys could collapse as the destruction of the NATO airstrikes sinks in with ordinary Serbs, who have been immune from the bloodshed their government has sponsored in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. There are also thought to be extensive cracks inside the regime. Finally, international opposition to NATO was offset by support from a large number other countries spanning from pro-US Japan to neutral Sweden.