Winter chills ground war threat

Approach of cold limits NATO options for Balkan invasion

May 25, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Time has all but run out for NATO to invade Yugoslavia and fight a ground war before the start of the Balkan winter, robbing the West of its greatest threat to President Slobodan Milosevic, alliance diplomats and military officials said yesterday.

Though President Clinton insisted last week that "we will not take any option off the table," the calendar is making the decision for him, requiring the United States and its NATO allies to rely on bombing and diplomacy to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo and allow the return of ethnic Albanian refugees.

NATO and American officials, putting the most optimistic cast on the situation, insist that the bombing campaign that began March 24 is working. A NATO diplomat predicted that Yugoslav forces may be forced to withdraw within a month.

But the pressures of time are having an evident effect on the efforts to solve the conflict diplomatically. Already, the Clinton administration is starting to trim its demand that "all" Serbian forces be removed from Kosovo. Now, U.S. officials say, the United States is prepared to allow a small number of Serbian soldiers back into the province as part of a peace agreement to guard religious sites of national importance to Serbia.

"If we want a settlement right away, he has additional leverage over us," Daniel Serwer, a Balkans expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said of Milosevic.

The onset of winter in the Balkans -- which often occurs by October -- has always lurked in the background of NATO's plans for the war and Western nations' plans for how to feed and care for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have streamed into Macedonia, Albania and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

U.S. and allied officials have hoped to avoid a ground war, and the Clinton administration had said since the bombing campaign began that it had no intention of sending U.S. troops to fight a ground war in Kosovo. Nevertheless, its existence as even a remote possibility has added pressure on the Serbs.

Diplomats and retired and current military officials differ on whether any time is left to launch a ground invasion if Clinton and other alliance leaders wanted to. Two diplomats in Brussels, Belgium, effectively ruled it out, noting the lack of political preparation and the absence of serious discussion of a ground war among senior NATO officials.

A senior defense official agreed that time was running out. "Every week that goes by closes off your options," he said. "I don't know what the magic cutoff number is."

U.S. and NATO officials say that while it would be possible for NATO to fight a ground war during the winter, it would be far more difficult than in the summer and early fall.

"It complicates things miserably," a senior Pentagon official said.

In addition to the harsh weather and difficult mountainous terrain, soldiers would require as much as 25 percent more supplies, including winter clothing and fuel.

"You really have to have a decision now" to assemble the necessary forces for a ground war, one NATO diplomat said. "If you're talking about fighting your way in before winter so you have Kosovo before the snow flies, you've got to have a force assembled and ready to go in by mid-July."

Another diplomat said, "I suppose if a decision were made immediately, you might be able to" mount a ground invasion. If an invasion hasn't been ruled out for lack of time, he added, it has been foreclosed by the lack of support within the alliance: "Nobody, absolutely nobody is talking about an invasion."

Although Germany has been the most outspoken against any public discussion of an invasion, not even Britain, the most hawkish member of the alliance, has proposed it in the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's political decision-making body, a NATO diplomat said.

While putting aside any idea of invading Yugoslavia, the council is expected this week to approve a force of 50,000 NATO peacekeepers to enter Kosovo with Milosevic's agreement or once his forces become so weakened by NATO bombing that they withdraw on their own. Officials say the force could encounter pockets of resistance even after much of the Yugoslav army withdraws from the province.

Meanwhile, NATO is stepping up the intensity of its air attacks, with an expanded range of targets, officials say, while pushing simultaneously for a diplomatic settlement.

In the current diplomatic efforts, officials are pushing for an agreement between Western powers and Russia that would propel several events almost simultaneously: the beginning of a Serbian withdrawal; a pause in the bombing; a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a peacekeeping force; and a cease-fire by the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel force.

Very soon thereafter, a peacekeeping force could move in to secure the province.

Negotiations resume this week between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Russia's envoy to the Balkans, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. The two are expected to discuss what role Serbia might play in the civil administration of Kosovo after the war and whether there will be a continued presence of at least some Serbian forces after the war. Any Serbian participation would mark a concession by the West, which has sought to remove Milosevic's authority over the province.

The approach of winter is influencing not only the thinking about ground troops but also the plans for housing and caring for refugees. By mid-August, a NATO diplomat said, the alliance must decide whether to plan to winterize refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, or, if the bombing has succeeded, whether to erect temporary housing in Kosovo for the refugees' return.

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