Warfare by consensus tests resolve of the West

Alliance is split on sending in ground troops and Russia may defy oil

Like the Cadillacs and Lincolns in their motorcades, NATO leaders at this weekend's summit fell in line behind a Kosovo strategy that, at its core, remains unchanged from the beginning. It underscores the increasing difficulty of waging war by political consensus.

NATO leaders plan to broaden their bombing campaign - with resolve - and supplement it with increased economic and diplomatic pressure against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Those who believe that only ground troops can break Mr. Milosevic's hold on Kosovo are keenly disappointed. Those who fear a Vietnam-like quagmire are relieved. But even with this cautious approach, new problems loom. Russia is vowing to defy any oil embargo against Yugoslavia that NATO imposes, raising the prospect of conflicts at sea and deepening the rift between Moscow and the West.

"They've probably done the best they could do under the circumstances," says Stanley Sloan, a NATO expert here. Indeed, the summit showed the growing conflict between political imperative and military strategy that NATO leaders face in trying to maintain unity in the alliance. For instance, France and Britain can imagine eventually sending ground forces to clear the way for returning refugees - even without Milosevic's consent.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair made that case - forcefully - to President Clinton, raising expectations that NATO would at a minimum acknowledge that a ground invasion is an option and at a maximum begin to order troops into position.

Heightening expectations, too, was the statement by NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana on the eve of the summit that last October's contingency plans for ground troops would be dusted off and updated.

But Germany shudders at the idea of a ground invasion. Such a move could undo its governing coalition, alienating the Greens party in particular. Thus, German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder said at the summit, with obvious relief, that the "debate on ground troops is no longer on the table."

Clinton has been hesitant about using grounds forces for his own political reasons. Perhaps not surprising, then, NATO's final statement on Kosovo contained no reference to a land presence other than "stationing" international forces in Kosovo only after Belgrade had "unequivocally accepted" all the conditions of the alliance and begun to withdraw its forces.

Still, NATO unity may be just as much at risk if the air campaign fails to force Milosevic to back down. Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, for example, says the unrelenting sorties could turn his nation against NATO. "The more the war continues, the more difficult the problems will be."

Contrary to NATO proclamations that the alliance is "winning," Mr. Simitis says the air raids have only intensified ethnic cleansing and strengthened Milosevic's standing among Serbs.

With these kinds of tensions at work, NATO is sticking with the air campaign, but will intensify the number of raids and hit more targets. Significantly, NATO political leaders for the first time gave military commanders authority to strike targets without getting prior approval from all members. The targets include some that primarily affect civilians, such as utilities and water systems.

IN another sign of resolve, Hungary - one of the alliance's three new members - has agreed to let NATO warplanes launch attacks from its airfields. Its proximity to Yugoslavia will be helpful as NATO adds 400 more aircraft to its arsenal.

Far more problematic will be the NATO leaders' decision to come up with a plan to cut off oil shipments to Belgrade. Alliance members argue that it makes no sense for NATO pilots to risk their lives leveling Yugoslavia's oil refineries and delivery system if fuel is slipping in through the back door.

But the idea is controversial on several fronts. France, although it approved the decision, still worries that a naval blockade could be legally defined as an act of war, and thus require United Nations approval.

Perhaps worse, Russia's promise to continue shipping oil to Yugoslavia's ports on the Adriatic coast could complicate any embargo - and would certainly heighten tensions with Moscow.

And then there's NATO political leaders' wish to avoid damage to Montenegro - the port of entry for oil shipments and a democratically elected Yugoslav province trying to keep Milosevic at bay.

It may be that, like its air campaign, whatever interdiction plan NATO's military leaders come up with will be so watered down by political considerations that it's too weak to accomplish its goal. Experts like Sloan are perplexed by the emphasis on a sea effort, anyway, since only a small amount of Yugoslavia's oil arrives by ship.

Sloan, who was Congress's lead authority on NATO for more than 20 years, says that perhaps the most significant effort to come out of the summit is a push for long-term planning for Southeast Europe. In their final communique, NATO's leaders said that the troubled region should be integrated with the rest of Europe, and proposed establishing a security forum for the region.

"We want that region to be able to put the instabilities and the tragedies of the past behind and to join the European mainstream," Mr. Solana said at a news conference on Saturday.

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