Leading Article: Russia takes its place at the peace table

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WAR-WEARINESS, LIKE everything else in today's accelerated world, happens more quickly than it used to. The supposed "deal" between Nato and Russia over possible peace terms in Kosovo was received with an eagerness that suggested that many in the West have already lost the will for a long war.

It was certainly a diplomatic triumph to secure the agreement of the Russians to an "effective" international force to ensure the return of the refugees to Kosovo. For all Boris Yeltsin's loose talk of World War III at the start of this conflict, Russian military intervention in the conflict is hardly credible. But the Russians have a significant role as a channel of communication to Slobodan Milosevic and as the Serbian dictator's only real external ally.

The problem with diplomatic triumphs is that they need first to be put into writing and second to be put into practice on the ground. At both stages it could turn out that the Russians say one thing and mean another. When it comes to the hard, detailed questions of who is to govern Kosovo and who will arbitrate on the thousands of inevitable disputes over identity and ownership as the refugees seek to reclaim that which has been stolen from them, it is hard to see how even Russian endorsement can help Milosevic persuade his people that he has "won".

So this week's deal was far from "peace for our time". It may be possible, if the Russian veto has been lifted, to obtain permission from the United Nations to put its badges on the uniforms of the troops who are to be responsible for escorting the Kosovar refugees back to their homes and for ensuring that they remain in security afterwards. That would help secure support in Nato for more forceful intervention and might make it easier for Milosevic to accept an international force on Serbian soil. But it will take time for the bureaucratic machinery to grind out the necessary resolutions. In the meantime there should be no question of the bombing being stopped.

Whether in the end the international force goes into Kosovo in a "semi- permissive environment" or a "permissive" one, the scale of the task facing the West, whether under a Nato banner or a UN one, remains formidable. The logistics of clearing minefields, rebuilding homes and reconstructing the Kosovar economy, such as it was, will cost Western countries dear in both money and, crucially, time.

It requires a huge effort to accommodate the refugees for many more months and to plan for their return. So far there seems to be a gap between the laudable objectives of the war - essentially turning the clock back to the situation on the eve of the bombing - and the means that are deployed. Neither Tony Blair nor President Clinton has quite carried conviction, despite using all the right words - Mr Blair because Britain's real contribution to the war effort is so much smaller than that of the United States, Mr Clinton because he is simply drained of moral authority.

The true significance of the Russian deal is that it could clear the way for a UN Security Council resolution effectively authorising a ground invasion. With or without Milosevic's compliance, that will take months to execute and years to complete. We do not have to accept Tony Blair's early suggestion that the war may last for four years to know that Britain and its allies must be in this for the long haul.