NATO seeks cooperation from Russia

Overture is made to end potential threat to Yugoslav oil embargo

Suddenly, a key player

Interest expressed in envoy's mediation attempt with Milosevic

War In Yugoslavia

April 25, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An absent Russia became a key player at the Washington NATO summit yesterday, posing a potential threat to an oil embargo against Yugoslavia while holding center stage in efforts to keep the month-old war over Kosovo from getting bloodier.

President Clinton challenged Moscow yesterday not to interfere with NATO ships that may be deployed to block oil deliveries to Yugoslavia. While promising that the alliance won't do anything likely to provoke violence, "we have to be firm about it," Clinton told reporters.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov sounded a defiant note during his trip to Egypt: "According to international law, sanctions cannot be imposed unless they are approved by the [United Nations] Security Council. We will continue delivering oil in keeping with our international commitments."

At the same time, NATO leaders continued to express interest in a Russian envoy's mediation efforts with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, even though the deal he offered the alliance Thursday was unacceptable.

The twin overtures came as the alliance, on a day devoted to looking to its role in the next century, bowed to some of its own members -- as well as Russia -- in agreeing that the United Nations holds the primary responsibility in ensuring world peace. The United Nations, where Russia wields a veto, was largely bypassed in the days leading up to the current war.

NATO entered the second month of the war against Yugoslavia yesterday, opening what officials promised would be an intensified bombing campaign by launching series of attacks across the country. But leaders remained divided and hesitant over the prospect of sending in ground troops.

Voicing confidence in the air campaign, Clinton said, "I don't think that this air campaign has been going on for a particularly long time." He said Americans needed to be patient and willing to "pay the price of time" before the effort would succeed.

He said he agreed with earlier assessments that air power alone wouldn't drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo, but said it could either break Milosevic's hold over Kosovo or make the price of staying there higher than the benefits.

Russia was invited to attend the summit as a member of the Partnership for Peace, which acts as a bridge between NATO and many nations that used to be part of or subservient to the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact.

But with NATO waging an escalating air war against its longtime friend Serbia, Moscow refused to attend. And when special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin expressed interest in coming to advance a peace proposal for Kosovo, he was gently rebuffed.

New direction

But Russia has suddenly become key to a new direction in the war, the decision by NATO defense ministers late Friday to launch a military effort to block oil deliveries to Yugoslavia.

U.S. intelligence officials say that since the air war started, more than 45,000 metric tons of oil have been delivered to Yugoslavia. Three of the biggest suppliers are Russia, Ukraine and NATO member Greece, they say.

As Clinton put it yesterday, "How can we justify risking the lives of the pilots to go up and destroy the refinery and the supply capacity of Serbia and then say, `But it's OK with us if people want to continue to supply this nation and its outlaw actions in Kosovo in another way?'"

An oil embargo adopted by the European Union and NATO is likely to halt the Greek shipments.

But how to block deliveries from countries outside the EU and NATO poses a major problem. France opposes an outright military blockade, calling it an act of war that would require a Security Council resolution.

Instead of forcibly stopping ships, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said, military authorities would develop plans for "visit and search," implying that NATO warships could intimidate the captains of oil tankers but stop short of force.

A senior administration official said the "visit and search" idea "would take a substantial number of ships to do an effective job."

NATO officials are also looking at other ways to cut off oil deliveries, including disrupting supply routes or bombing pipelines.

Plans have not been worked out, however. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said he would have an answer today to the question of whether the alliance has authority to search ships outside the EU or NATO.

Shea said that a U.N. arms embargo covers arms-related materials and suggested that oil fell into this category.

A senior administration official said the alliance hoped to work with Moscow to ease tension over the oil embargo. "We expect them to abide by the embargo," he said.

The official noted pointedly that Russia had pledged not to get involved in the conflict militarily and suggested that the delivery of oil supplies would help the Yugoslav war effort.

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