Next: Kosovo as a test of stamina

NATO and Milosevic both insist that their plans are working, an

The struggle between NATO and Yugoslavia over the fate of Kosovo has now reached what might be called the beginning of the middle.

An end to the conflict is not yet in sight, but both sides appear to be intensifying their maneuvering for diplomatic, as well as military advantage.

Thus President Slobodan Milosevic has guilefully asserted that "peace has been restored in Kosovo." That's easy for him to say, since his brutal Operation Horseshoe has cleared much of Kosovo of ethnic Albanians.

NATO, for its part, is trying to convince the Yugoslav strongman that no member of the alliance is buying his line, and that its bombing campaign will be relentless. NATO leaders have begun predicting that he will soon move toward serious negotiating.

Both sides are trying to look confident that the will of the other is about to crack.

"I'm concerned that we are just emerging from the beginning. We may be far from done with military force," says Peter Balakian, director of The Center for Ethics and World Societies at Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.

As the NATO bombing war over Yugoslavia nears its third week, these are some key questions the conflict's middle stage might answer:

When is NATO not NATO? In other words, what organization would be in charge of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, if Mr. Milosevic ever agrees to allow one in?

To this point, the US and its allies have insisted that such a force would have a NATO tag. But in recent days, Western officials have hinted that they might allow Russia, a non-NATO nation, to participate in what might then become a UN mission.

The involvement of Russia, which has close ties to its fellow Slavic nation of Yugoslavia, might allow Milosevic the political cover he would need to accept the presence of foreign troops on Kosovo soil.

What is Kosovo, anyway? Or, more specifically, what are its boundaries? That is another key question a settlement of the conflict will have to address.

Some analysts foresee an endgame in which NATO allows Milosevic to retain small sections of Kosovo that contain Serbian shrines such as Orthodox monasteries. Ethnic Albanians would get the rest, under some yet-to-be-set form of self-government.

As commentators have pointed out endlessly on cable TV news shows, Kosovo is a sacred symbol to Serbs, even though few live there. It was the heart and soul of medieval Serbia. Giving it up in its entirety might be very difficult for Serbs to swallow.

But it's hard to see how allowing the partition of Kosovo would not be at least a partial defeat for the NATO campaign.

"Either NATO is going to have to go in there and literally win a war, or it will end up settling for half-measures [such as Kosovo partition], and the problem will just simmer," says Dennis Hupchick, director of East European Studies at Wilkes University in Wilkes Barre, Pa.

Yet perhaps the most important question now facing NATO officials as they gather in Brussels is this: Milosevic - stay, or go?

The US and its allies have long had a strange relationship with the Balkan bully. On the one hand, they have reviled him as an immoral dictator who cynically manipulates ethnic passions to his ends. On the other, they have in the past depended on him as a negotiating power, someone capable of striking a deal to end the war in Bosnia, and then enforcing the deal with his own ethnic allies.

Yet the stakes may have become too high for Milosevic himself to be part of an ending equation.

"I don't think we can negotiate with him now," says David Stefancic, a history professor and Eastern European specialist at St. Mary College, Notre Dame, Ind. "We've made him into such a bogeyman. We have made him into Saddam Hussein."

To say that NATO is now at the beginning of the middle portion of its conflict with Yugoslavia is something of an artificial judgment, of course. There is no textbook of geopolitics that defines the beginning, middle, and end of crises.

The more general point is that the shock of the initial struggle has passed, yet the way ahead still looks unclear. Western publics, which have become increasingly hawkish about the conflict in response to evidence of suffering among ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugees, may not yet be aware that the process of reaching a settlement is likely to take a long time.

There may be no serious progress until the bombing campaign bites even more deeply into Yugoslav military assets.

"The US government ought to recognize that this is going to take a long while," says Stephen Larrabee, a senior staff member at the Rand Corp. here. "The president needs to prepare Congress and the American people that this is going to take some time before it is going to be resolved."

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