Talk to the Russians by all means, but Nato must stick to its guns

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The Independent Culture
THE TRIP was arranged well before the war in Kosovo. But the fact that the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, is spending the weekend in Edinburgh with Robin Cook is symbolic. For yesterday's agreement in Bonn by the G7 countries to work towards a UN resolution sanctioning the goal of an international protection force in Kosovo is an important moment in the determined diplomatic effort to make Russia, as a senior British minister crisply put it this week, part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

So far, moreover, it seems to be working. The Russians reached agreement in Bonn yesterday with the leading Western Allies on the need for withdrawal from Kosovo of Serbian military police and paramilitary forces, and the eventual deployment in Kosovo of "effective international civil and security presences". Agreeing the detail of a UN resolution in New York may take much longer than agreeing the principles. The Russians still have important - some would say fundamental - differences with Nato over the composition and control of the force that would protect returning Albanians in Kosovo

The communique was unspecific, though both Mr Cook and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, were adamant that this means putting Nato at the core of such a force. British officials, moreover, said that the word "effective" had been inserted into the text by Mr Cook and was understood by the Russians as meaning that the force would be properly equipped and armed.

This is an important step. Nato leaders now believe that the Russians have dropped their wholly unrealistic insistence on Serbian police units - as opposed to military ones - remaining in Kosovo as part of a settlement. Given that police elements have been at least as barbaric as military ones, that was never remotely acceptable to the Allies. Secondly, whatever the gaps between the Russian view of an acceptable protection force and Nato's, the simple fact that they are not locked in some pan-Slavic pact with Slobodan Milosevic is itself significant. It means that the Serbian leader was as misinformed by his brother, the Serbian ambassador in Moscow, about Russian willingness to come to his aid, as he was when his diplomatic missions in Western capitals told him that Nato had no stomach for a protracted war. Even if the Russians were to fail to reach agreement with the Allies in New York, they have been drawn into a process that, at the very least, neutralises them as potential allies for the Serb regime.

The attractions for Russia of its engagement in this process are obvious. And they go beyond the war. Moscow, properly, refuses to accept a linkage between support for the Allied objectives in the Balkans, if not their means of achieving them, and the prospects for international help to ease their own desperate economic plight. But they also know that, for example, being outvoted 44 to 1 at a recent UN meeting in Geneva on the Kosovo refugees is hardly the way to ensure support from the IMF.

Those Nato ministers who converse most regularly with their Russian counterparts believe that they have been shocked to find themselves so isolated. On the Western side, the lively desire to prevent Russia sinking into destructive nationalism is growing steadily keener. Western leaders, not least Tony Blair, have been thinking a good deal about the importance of helping post-Communist Russia to become a country that works. Maximising the degree of unity between Russia and Nato over Kosovo is an important part of that process.

But there are also dangers, not all of which were eliminated by the wording of the joint G8 communique issued in Bonn yesterday. The most potent fear is that, even supposing it is successful, all this diplomacy will blur the decisiveness of the final outcome to the very extent that it helps to hasten it. There is a lingering fear that Washington and Moscow will somehow cut the ground from under the Western European Allies by brokering a deal that stops short of the one outcome which Tony Blair has repeatedly, and rightly, made clear is necessary for the war to stop: the return of all the Kosovo refugees in safety to their homes.

To be fair, nothing Clinton has said in the past 48 hours, let alone Washington's increased willingness to sanction more dangerous low-level bombing missions, suggests that this is about to happen. But questions remain. How total will Serb force withdrawal have to be for the war to end? Yesterday's G8 agreement does not talk of the withdrawal of "all" military forces. Some say that the Nato commitment to total withdrawal means total. Others even within Nato say, sotto voce, that they do not rule out the possibility that a token presence of a few hundred Serbian military personnel might remain as a symbol that Kosovo remains technically part of what is left of Yugoslavia. Yet others say the question is academic: no Serb, military, paramilitary or police, would wish to remain in the circumstances that would allow the Albanians to return.

Finally, there is an unspoken fear that the Russians will press the Allies to accept, if not partition itself, at least some kind of sectorisation that could have the same effect. Anyone who thinks that Albanian refugees would willingly return to, say, a Russian-controlled sector of Kosovo, as opposed to one that is controlled by the British or the Americans, is almost certainly sadly mistaken.

Inherent in all this is a dilemma of which British ministers appear to be fully conscious: how to keep the Russians engaged in the process without diluting the war's objectives. In this Mr Blair remains pivotal. For all his deep concern to prevent the isolation of Russia, he knows that his larger geopolitical vision also depends on a truly decisive outcome in Kosovo.

That vision, which he outlined in his Chicago speech, includes an obligation, post-war, on Europe to bear a greater share of the burden of international security (as the British and French agreed in St Malo) and the further integration into Nato and, in time, the EU of the democracies of south- eastern Europe. Mr Blair knows there will be a price to be paid for his vision. Defence budgets will possibly have to rise, in the short term, at the expense of more electorally attractive expenditure. And the costs of EU enlargement will have to be met.

All this will be worth it if, and only if, Nato succeeds in Kosovo. If it doesn't, as he reminded his audience in Chicago, "the next dictator to be threatened with military force may well not believe our resolve to carry the threat through". That surely means that, however long it takes, Western electorates will have to see television pictures of Albanian refugees returning to their homes in every part of Kosovo. The ineluctable logic is that Russian engagement in the diplomatic process could not be more welcome, but also that it cannot be allowed to lead to a fudge.