Perhaps believing Kosovo's rebellion is crushed, and facing devastation at home, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is moving on the political front to halt NATO bombing and claim victory.
NATO, however, appears determined to resist Mr. Milosevic's ploys, which include his reported readiness to free three captured American soldiers.
Among the 19-member alliance, there's a sentiment that conceding to Milosevic would not only represent defeat, but could ultimately destroy NATO itself.
Even so, Western leaders continue refused to send ground troops. That leaves it unclear how they will prevail in their goal of returning an estimated 400,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to an autonomous Kosovo that would be protected by an international military force.
The impasse seemed to augur a period of intense brinkmanship of uncertain duration and outcome, with no letup in the bombing or Europe's worst humanitarian calamity since World War II. NATO foreign ministers said they would meet in Brussels on Monday to consider their next steps.
The uncertainty was reflected in a letter President Clinton sent yesterday to Congress. In it, he said it's "not possible to predict" how long American troops and other NATO forces will continue attacking Yugoslavia and delivering humanitarian aid to ethnic Albanian refugees.
He also indirectly acknowledged that NATO had failed to halt "a humanitarian disaster of staggering dimensions" created by "Belgrade's sustained and accelerating repression" of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. "The worsening instability in Kosovo directly threatens peace in the region," Mr. Clinton warned.
For his part, Milosevic sought to build on a unilateral cease-fire he declared Tuesday for Christian Orthodox Easter, closing border crossings with Albania and Macedonia and turning tens of thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians back into a burning Kosovo. The move appeared aimed at proving the sincerity of his pledge to allow refugees to go home. But Germany warned that the refugees could be used "as human shields for military targets."
Milosevic reportedly was also preparing to free three American soldiers his forces captured last week on the Kosovo-Macedonia border. Cypriot Parliament Speaker Spyros Kyprianou flew to Belgrade to pick up the trio.
Divide NATO and conquer?
The Yugoslav leader's quick maneuvering was aimed at pressuring NATO to halt 15 days of bombing by playing on divisions within the Western alliance. It was also intended to encourage an international outcry led by Russia.
Milosevic's cease-fire offer comes two weeks after Serb forces began an onslaught against rebels of Kosovo's 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority and their civilian support base.
Backed by tanks and artillery, troops and police have reportedly burned and slaughtered their way through the province, driving some 350,000 ethnic Albanians into Macedonia and Albania. Those countries were already hosting tens of thousands of Kosovars expelled last year.
United States officials acknowledge that NATO has "lost" the battle to halt the repression. But the alliance, they insist, is united in continuing the air campaign until Milosevic agrees to allow all refugees to return to an autonomous Kosovo under international military protection.
"NATO is having a tremendous impact on his military," asserts a US official. "Ethnic cleansing will not be rewarded, period."
Milosevic, he and other officials say, may have miscalculated on the timing of his cease-fire offer and other maneuvering. Their impact is being offset by worldwide outrage over tales of Serbian atrocities and an outpouring of sympathy for the ethnic Albanian refugees. They point to a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showing two-thirds of Americans supporting the airstrikes.
"Milosevic's strategy has been to divide NATO and create enough doubt to halt [the bombing]," says the US official. "That is not going to happen."
US strategy, he says, remains the same: to pound Yugoslavia until Milosevic is no longer capable of resisting NATO troops that would be sent to repatriate the refugees.
Playing the economic card
Western officials also believe the air war is devastating Yugoslavia's economy, which had already been hurt by sanctions. This, they hope, may eventually prove to be Milosevic's undoing - whatever the outcome of the Kosovo crisis.
Besides destroying Yugoslav military targets and the infrastructure network, NATO has damaged the fuel reserves farmers need for spring planting.
"Our demands are clear, and Milosevic has to accept them," says a European diplomat. "If not, the bridges keep coming down, the factories keep coming down, and hunger [in Serbia] is just over the horizon."
Confirms Predrag Simic, a Belgrade political scientist: "The bombing is become too much. The bill is growing."
Furthermore, Milosevic has devastated the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Even so, say US officials, the ethnic Albanian guerrillas remain a viable force that is beginning to hit back at Serb forces now being pummeled in Kosovo by NATO planes and missiles.
Trying to defeat the KLA is "like trying to hit a puddle of mercury with a hammer," says one official.
Yet US officials concede that Milosevic is not cowed, adamantly refusing to accept NATO's demands. They say he may also strike at the pro-West government of Montenegro, the tiny republic that, with Serbia, makes up what remains of Yugoslavia.