And yet Russia's special envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, sounded genuinely hopeful after he met Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, and set off yesterday for a tour of European capitals with a new peace plan. Is his optimism justified?
It is probably the case that Milosevic is well aware that he has to cut a deal with Nato at some point, and that if he leaves it too long he could get badly caught out either by popular discontent as life in Yugoslavia becomes progressively more miserable, or by a Nato ground attack that could take Kosovo from him without anything in return. But he also knows that neither of these is very likely until well into June, especially in the light of the evident reluctance at the Nato summit to press ahead with the ground force option. The longer he waits, the more chance he has of doubters eating away at Alliance solidarity, and the better the eventual deal.
Viktor Chernomyrdin is as likely as anybody to broker a deal, but far too much emphasis is being put on Moscow's role at the moment. Russia is the closest Yugoslavia has to an ally. There should be no underestimating the depth of its hostility to Nato's actions (rather than enthusiasm for Serbia). But Russia brings few resources to the conflict. Milosevic may be hoping for more help with fuel supplies, but Moscow has no real leverage over Belgrade. It provides no military help, while its attempts to orchestrate diplomatic support have ended in embarrassment, with votes in the Security Council on a motion to condemn Nato's use of force (12 to three against) and in the Committee on Human Rights, where only Russia opposed a motion condemning Serb actions in Kosovo, with 44 votes against and six abstentions.
Nato is paying court to the Russians at the moment because it is alarmed at the sharp deterioration in relations and wishes to reassure them that their views matter. But they do not matter to the point that Nato will compromise on its basic aims, or will stop the bombing campaign to "give diplomacy a chance". The concessions that have been discussed essentially involve providing Milosevic with the face-saving device of a Security Council resolution that may not even mention Nato and will allow for non- Nato forces to be part of the post-settlement protection force. But Milosevic has never been one to show deep respect for security resolutions in the past (he has seen off more than 100 during this decade).
In addition, Nato forces will have to be at the core of a "UN presence". After all that they have been through the refugees are unlikely to venture home without anything less. Chernomyrdin's ideas to keep out Nato's most prominent members make no practical sense. Their forces are already in Macedonia ready to go in. Other forces, such as those of Greece, let alone Russia, would take time to assemble.
So whatever the wrapping, the basic package remains the same. Russia has no magic formula to make this acceptable to Milosevic. Once he allows a Nato force and the right of return to all refugees, he has lost. What then of partition? This is the standard compromise in ethnic disputes and would allow Russia to claim that neither Nato nor Belgrade was victorious. Serbs and Albanians will no longer live together, so give them both their own ethnically coherent territory. It is widely assumed that this is the deal that Milosevic intends to offer when the time is ripe. He has, however, shown no interest in it up to now and apparently dismissed the idea when it was proposed by the Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. On reflection it is not hard to see why.
On the basis of the pre-war demographic balance, the Serbs would be entitled to less than 10 per cent of the territory, which clearly would be of little interest to Belgrade. The most logical division from Belgrade's point of view would take in the top half of the country, including the sites of historic importance to the Serbs, the lead and zinc mines of the Trepca region, and the cities of Pristina, Mitrovica and Pec.
Even then it would be extraordinarily risky for the Serbs to allow the territory extending into the heart of the country from Albania to be out of their control. The KLA would never accept any settlement along these lines, and would soon be launching attacks against Serb-held territory. Milosevic's memory may well turn back to Croatia, which declared independence in the summer of 1991. The Yugoslav army joined with local Serbs in a ruthless offensive (which first introduced the idea of "ethnic cleansing"). In the end Croatia got its independence recognised internationally but had to accept partition, a "Republic of Serb Krajina", within its borders, its status apparently guaranteed by UN peacekeeping forces. Croatia rebuilt its forces and in the summer of 1995 retook Krajina, with this time some 200,000 Serbs forced to flee.
Milosevic's proposals will concentrate on the political front. He can promise dialogue with the Albanians and even autonomy close to Rambouillet lines, but he does so with some three-quarters of the population uprooted, and about half of these out of the country or dead. He will insist that all refugees can come home, just so long, of course, as they can prove their Yugoslav nationality - somewhat difficult when passports, identity papers and car number plates have been seized and destroyed. His underlings have been reported as envisaging a manageable post-war Albanian population of 600,000 (from a pre-war 1,800,000). At these levels unarmed monitors and Nato troops are redundant.
Milosevic never stops calculating. Looking at what is happening to his country he may recognise that in the end, with such powerful forces ranged against him, his terrible project for Kosovo cannot succeed. Alternatively, he may be toppled from power. So long as he remains in place it is important to recognise that there is no easy compromise or clever formula that can extract either Belgrade or Nato from the confrontation. The issue remains constant: either the refugees go home in security, or they do not.
The writer is professor of war studies at King's College, LondonReuse content