As the crisis in Kosovo moves into its fourth week, NATO appears ready to make a more concerted attempt to engage Moscow in efforts to resolve the conflict.
With hawkish cries growing louder in Russia, there is increasing realization among Western leaders that Moscow could prove vital as NATO looks for an exit route from the Balkans.
To that end, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met today in Oslo, Norway, with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Russia's influence over fellow Slav and Orthodox Christian ally Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is questionable following the failure of an earlier mediation attempt. But Moscow hopes to serve as go-between for Belgrade and the West, particularly if proposals for a non-NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo take root.
"There's no one else who can play that role," says a Western diplomat. "And it's important not to push the Russians completely to the sidelines."
At stake is not just finding a solution to the Yugoslav conflict, but preserving what's left of the delicate security partnership crafted after the cold war's end. Russia has frozen relations with NATO to protest airstrikes on Yugoslav targets and diplomats say it will take years to repair trust.
NATO has wagered that Russia is so dependent on Western financial aid and its army is so weak that it would not risk a military confrontation. But the Kremlin signaled Friday that this might change if NATO ground troops were deployed.
An enhanced negotiating role is exactly what Russia wants, after the humiliation of NATO staging raids without its consultation. The Western alliance's intervention in the Balkans only emphasized Russia's loss of superpower status and a feeling that the West had erased its last bit of influence in Europe.
There is widespread anger in Moscow that its calls have not been taken seriously for a greater United Nations role and a full meeting of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations to resolve the Kosovo crisis.
"I don't think they properly tried to use Russia, or listen to it," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politica Foundation, a Moscow think tank.
Government sources believe they can play a bigger role, but concede they have little hope of convincing Mr. Milosevic of anything so long as NATO forces are staging air raids on Serbia or insist on conditions he finds unacceptable. Twenty days of airstrikes have hardened his position, they believe.
"America should be providing Milosevic with a chance to retreat, but they aren't," says one high-ranking Russian official. "We are ready to try again and again to make Milosevic compromise. But our influence ... is extremely limited if NATO's proposals are unrealistic. They don't realize what price he will pay."
Where Russians feel they can play a pivotal role is in a possible international peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Russian officials say they are not averse to contributing a large contingent to a UN-supervised force, or serving as messenger to present such a plan to Milosevic.
"This proposal of Russian peacekeepers has been on the desk for a long time. We are ready to send them in - but only if both Milosevic and the international community agree," says one Russian official.
One stumbling block would be money, however. In the midst of a financial crisis, Russia lacks the funds to properly feed its own 1.2 million-member fighting force. Someone else would have to foot the bill.
Besides desiring the prestige of playing a peacekeeping role, Russian President Boris Yeltsin wants to avert nationalist pressure to take firmer action to aid Milosevic.
A tense situation was resolved Monday when Hungary agreed to allow a Russian humanitarian aid convoy for Yugoslavia to cross its territory. New NATO member Hungary had voiced concern that the large amount of fuel being transported violated a UN embargo and that several armored trucks could be used for military purposes. The trucks and about half the fuel will stay behind.
In another development, the Yugoslav parliament voted in favor of joining a loose union with fellow Slavic countries Russia and Belarus. Observers saw the move as merely symbolic.