NATO, Russia closing breach

Moscow reportedly set to support terms of truce for Kosovo

Agreement expected today

Shift would effectively increase pressure on Milosevic to end war

May 06, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Russia will join Western nations today in approving the outlines of an agreement that would intensify pressure on Belgrade to pull its troops from Kosovo and allow refugees to return under the eye of an armed international force, diplomats say.

By patching up an angry rift with Russia, the West hopes to show Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that he has no important allies left.

In the meantime, with Milosevic showing no sign of yielding to NATO's terms for ending the war, the alliance will increase its bombing, officials say.

While pressing for a diplomatic solution, the Clinton administration wants to avoid seeming so eager for a deal that Milosevic gets the wrong impression that NATO's resolve is weakening. At a recent summit in Washington, NATO leaders might have given that impression when they postponed any consideration of a major ground war.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will meet in Germany today with other foreign ministers of the Group of Eight, made up of the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Japan.

They are expected to approve a framework that calls for the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army and military police from Kosovo, the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians driven from their homes by Serbian "ethnic cleansing," and the introduction of an international security force.

The expected agreement today will mark Russia's first acceptance of an armed security force in Kosovo, which could include Russian and Ukrainian soldiers.

At the same time, with Moscow still balking at NATO leadership of the force, U.S. officials warned against calling this a breakthrough. NATO has said its conditions for ceasing the bombing include the acceptance of an international military force in Kosovo, with NATO troops at its "core."

"It's a starting point, not an end point," a senior Clinton administration official said last night.

Officials are also anxious not to have today's meeting portrayed as a rush to a diplomatic solution.

"We have a lot of work to do," the senior official said.

The plan also calls for an international interim administration for the Serbian province.

Once the Yugoslavs accept the principles and begin their withdrawal, there would be an immediate pause in the bombing.

The plan also calls for a cease-fire and a disarming of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army that has been battling the Yugoslav government troops.

"We will try very hard to reach an agreement with Russia so that the five [NATO] conditions become the five conditions not simply of 99 percent of the international community, but of 100 percent -- or virtually -- of the international community," said Jamie P. Shea, NATO's spokesman.

"We would then have succeeded not only in isolating Milosevic militarily, not only in isolating Milosevic economically, but also in cutting him off politically as well. Every escape exit will be banged shut. And that will, I think, help to increase the pressure enormously."

The framework expected to be approved today is based broadly on proposals put forward by Germany several weeks ago.

With Russia throwing its support behind the framework, diplomats expect it to be endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, giving it the force of international law.

Five weeks ago, Russia treated NATO's air war against Yugoslavia as a body blow to its own role in the world. President Boris N. Yeltsin angrily downgraded Russia's ties with the alliance, and Moscow menacingly said it might send warships into the Adriatic Sea.

Now, Russia has assumed a pivotal role in trying to end the conflict, with a special envoy for Kosovo, former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, shuttling among Western capitals and Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

The process has moved Russia closer to the West. But it has also forced Western leaders to make compromises that could cloud NATO's future.

"The Europeans, having learned at the NATO summit that the Clinton administration has no plan to win the war [with ground combat], now just want it over," said Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

From the beginning of the air campaign six weeks ago, the Clinton administration and key European allies, particularly Germany, have worked hard to try to prevent a deterioration in relations between the West and Russia.

Key officials, including Albright, Vice President Al Gore, and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, have been in almost daily contact with top officials in Moscow. (Talbott will discuss relations with Moscow and diplomatic efforts to end the war in a speech tonight before the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs.)

Russia risked becoming marginalized, analysts say, once its protests against the war failed to divide the Western alliance.

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