Through sheer ruthlessness and tactical skill, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is rapidly raising the pressure on NATO's current air-war strategy and the stakes for NATO leaders.
He is making it more difficult every day for the allies not to either back away from their aims in Kosovo or escalate their commitment and take the war to the ground.
Even before the capture of three US soldiers, President Clinton and his allies faced doubts about their strategy as Mr. Milosevic remained unbowed by 10 days of bombing, steeled by his people's support and Russia's decision to send a warship - maybe more - to the region.
Now Milosevic has added to the pressure on NATO by snatching the American troops and threatening to put them on trial.
And there were signs yesterday that he was upping the ante. First, he ousted a key Army commander in possible preparation for toppling the pro-West government of Yugoslavia's Montenegro.
Then, in a masterly stroke to paint NATO as the aggressor, Milosevic met yesterday in Belgrade with moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who was in Serbian custody.
The two agreed, according to the unverifiable state-run media's report, "that problems can be solved successfully ... only through political means."
"They seem to know our strategic pressure points much better than we know theirs," says Richard Shultz of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.
Gen. George Joulwan, the former supreme NATO commander, agrees: "All this should be anticipated."
Plan A, B, or C?
The options for President Clinton and his 18 allies all carry profound risks and no assurance that NATO can achieve its goals of averting even greater destabilization in the Balkans and securing its place as the guardian of European security in the next century.
Furthermore, what is widely seen as Washington's greatest foreign-policy test in Europe since the end of the cold war is taking on profound political consequences at home.
For Mr. Clinton, it could become the most critical lens through which his legacy as an international statesman will be seen. And for Vice President Al Gore, the outcome could have a major impact on his bid to win the presidency in the 2000 elections.
Experts and some US officials say one option for NATO would be finding a politically defensible way to negotiate with Milosevic. But that could be hard to justify. Western leaders now vilify him as a war criminal for the reported atrocities and expulsions of Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians in Europe's worst humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.
A second option would be to continue pounding Yugoslavia from the air, with the hope that Milosevic will eventually halt his onslaught in Kosovo and accept a peace plan calling for greater autonomy for the ethnic Albanians. Many analysts and some US officials, however, discount such an approach as infeasible. It is doubtful, they say, that he will ever allow the hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to Kosovo, because Milosevic would see himself as securing forever the province revered by Serbs as their historic heartland.
For the moment, however, that option still appears to remain Western strategy. NATO will prevail, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said after the capture of the American soldiers, but it will need "stamina and determination."
But the possibility of a third choice for NATO appeared to be growing: moving beyond the "limited" use of force it had hoped would compel Milosevic's capitulation and bringing to bear its full military might, including deploying ground troops, to win what is escalating into a full-scale war.
Despite the huge operational hurdles and risk of large-scale loses, some experts and US officials believe NATO will have no choice but to adopt this option. They say that while there is still insufficient public and political support for ground intervention, the capture of the American troops may radically turn popular opinion.
"This changes everything," says one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"This means they [Belgrade] have declared war on NATO, and if the worst comes to pass, there is no doubt in my mind that there's going to have to be unconditional surrender by Milosevic before it stops."
James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says that the capture of the American soldiers could make it easier for the administration to make a case to the public and Congress for ground troops.
"Once US soldiers are attacked or killed .... it is going to be easier to justify a more active use of force," he says.
Some US officials say they believe that, in kidnapping the troops as they patrolled inside the border of Macedonia, Milosevic was hoping to replicate the outcry that erupted in the US over the 1993 slayings of 18 American soldiers by Somali gunmen. The political storm forced Clinton to end US involvement in a UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia.
But they point out that Milosevic may have overlooked the 1991 Gulf War, when the US-led coalition continued to bomb Iraq even though Baghdad used allied prisoners as "human shields" to protect his military installations.
One US official asserts: "The Serbs are declaring war on NATO, and NATO strategy will move from trying to stop the atrocities [in Kosovo] to a full engagement."