Six weeks after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, the machinery of negotiation has at last lurched into motion.
Through hints, nods, and carefully parsed phrases, both sides may now be indicating that they are ready to deal.
Much depends on motive. Many Western experts remain convinced that recent overtures from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic are nothing more than feints meant to sap NATO's will.
Still, such efforts as the shuttle diplomacy of the peace efforts of Russian go-between Viktor Chernomyrdin represent the best chance to date for a settlement to the crisis.
"I would be cautiously optimistic," says Paul Michelson, a historian of the Balkans region at Huntington College in Indiana.
One indication of this possible opening is the changed nature of the Russian involvement. Gone are bellicose statements from Moscow about such matters as possibly retargeting their nuclear missiles at the West in response to NATO's attack on their Serbian cousins. In their place is Mr. Chernomyrdin, a former prime minister who is viewed favorably in NATO capitals.
As Moscow's newly appointed envoy to the Balkans, Chernomyrdin appears to have moved neither party very far. But he has also attempted to define the issues that would have to be addressed in any negotiated settlement, from the nature of any peacekeeping force left in Kosovo to the definition of Kosovo's future political status.
Furthermore, the United States is eager to have Russia play a positive role. Washington does not want a humiliated Moscow glowering at the proceedings in Kosovo from the sidelines.
"The interesting thing is that all this brings Russia back in," says Roger Petersen, a Balkans expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
And the role Russia might play in a settlement might represent something of a concession by NATO. Official NATO statements have now moved from insisting that a peacekeeping force in a resettled Kosovo be NATO-led, to that it be an "international military presence" that presumably would include Russian troops.
The Kosovo endgame might look like this: A predominantly Russian force patrolling the slice of the province that is majority Serb, and a largely Western force controlling the Albanian sectors. There are precedents for such shared control, among them the slicing of Berlin into sectors after World War II.
"There's an opening here if the United States would take it," says Mr. Petersen.
Not that Milosevic has. The only recent flexibility he has shown is a statement in a wire-service interview that he would allow a UN peacekeeping force armed for "self defense." In the past, Milosevic has said any international observers in Kosovo must be unarmed.
In past negotiations, US diplomats have found that Milosevic will make concessions on one issue, only to withdraw concessions on other things that he had previously made.
"He doesn't negotiate in good faith," says Lauren Van Metre, leader of a Balkans working group at the US Institute of Peace. "When he does reach an agreement, he doesn't abide by it."
Ms. Van Metre says she has seen no evidence that Milosevic has given up his long-stated goal of a greater Serbia, in which majority-Serb regions in the entire Balkans region are united in an ethnically homogenous state.