A certain grim comedy as well as a sense of deja vu pervades this turn of events. The United States has suffered one of the most crushing defeats a modern power can suffer: its best photo-opportunity has been swiped from under its nose. "Mom, this is me and the guys liberating Pristina" sounds a lot better than "Mom, this is us liberating Pristina with Igor, Sasha and Nikolai in the background". As the cynical presidential spin doctor in the White House satire Wag the Dog puts it, "Ten years from now, they'll have forgotten what the war was about. It's the pictures they remember."
The arrival of Russian paratroops' ill-fitting boots before the sturdy footwear of the US Marines or British Gurkhas reminds us that Russia's imperialist instincts remain intact, however parlous its domestic situation may be. Even though he presides over a country that has officially hung out the "basket case" sign, Boris Yeltsin is playing power politics in Europe exactly as his Soviet forebears did.
At the Tehran Conference in 1943, the Allies played Moscow's desire for glory to advantage by allowing Marshal Zhukov to advance on Berlin and take horrific casualties in the process. The Russians proved unfailingly adept at seizing the photographic offensive and adapting it to its propaganda needs. Yevgeny Khaldei's famous photograph of the red flag aloft over the Reichstag and the rubble surrounding it perpetuated the Kremlin's propaganda that the clash between Russia and Germany, not the fate of the rest of Europe or the defeat of a vile dictator, had been at the heart of the war. Similarly, premature entry in Kosovo was intended to reassure a desperate population that Russia can still be first at something.
Post-war Germany is the dominant model in Moscow's mind in its dealings with Kosovo. Moscow seeks the division of both the province and the capital into sectors, allowing it autonomy over its forces, rather than integration into Nato. When the deal was announced, I pointed out that while it was welcome that Russia and Nato should at last be using the same language, it was quite possible that they meant different things.
So it has turned out, even more dramatically than I thought. Indeed, it may even be that the desire to clinch an agreement and halt the bombing was so strong on Nato's side that a certain amount of vagueness was left as to the precise role of Russia in the implementation.
It has become a commonplace that it is important to treat Russia as part of the solution in the Balkans, not part of the problem. The truth is that it is both at the same time. Russia is not part of Kfor for operational reasons - frankly, it would be a lot easier to administer without them. It is there because its influence helped strong-arm Slobodan Milosevic into quitting Kosovo - and because leaving Moscow out of the agreement would have left an unsatisfied power grumbling on the sidelines with potential to make destabilising regional alliances in the future.
So it is better for the Russians to be there than not. But we should have no illusions that they will be easy or consistent partners. For a start, someone is going to have to pay for and feed them. Post-Chechnya, post rouble-devaluation, the army's kitty is empty and so is the quartermaster's store. The West will have to fork out to keep Russian troops in place in Kosovo. Nor is the cardinal question resolved: what is the future of the remaining Serbian minority?
Although Moscow would like to see Pristina divided into four Nato sectors and one Russian one - as Berlin was after the Second World War - this is unlikely to happen for the simple reason that there will soon be no Serbs left in the capital for Russia to protect. Subtract the numbers of Serb militia and police who have been poured into the city in the past few years by Belgrade in order to quell dissent, and there are few civilians left. They are not inclined to remain.
The fate of the Serbs spread throughout Kosovo was not nailed down in the peace plan, but its resolution will determine what sort of society Kosovo becomes, and lay the ground for the treatment of ethnic minorities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Like the ethnic Germans in Eastern Prussia, Silesia and Bohemia after the Third Reich, the Serbs are the undeserving victims of a dictator's territorial aggrandisement. Their options are unenviable. They can either flee into Serbia, which is hardly in a state to absorb refugees at present, or they can huddle together in northern Kosovo, protected from KLA reprisals by the Russians if Moscow gets its way and establishes some form of de facto sector of its own.
But the West is resisting this outcome as smacking of partitioning, and rightly so. For a start, who is going to implement a separation deal? On what moral authority could the UN say to Serbs in the south of Kosovo that they must move out of their homes and go north? And by what right would we tell Albanians near the Serb border to move south? Any division of Kosovo along ethnic lines would encourage a similar development in Macedonia, where the Albanians are concentrated in the west of the country. The shape of Kosovo will send a powerful signal throughout the region; we had better get it right. We cannot afford this time to create a solution that brews more tension for the future.
The Serbs may choose in time to leave Kosovo. But the UN has the opportunity and the moral duty to ensure that they have a choice in the matter. The administration of the province must guarantee minority rights in law, employment, property and education, and enforce them stringently. This is the time to make idealism work. Without a framework of humanitarian values, there can be no stable new Europe in the next century. The post- Communist democracies need high standards to which to rise, and the West must be more consistent than it has been in enforcing these wherever it has the power to do so. Legal rights of minorities and the persistent aim of integration, however heavy the odds against it now, are our only hope for a better and more secure continent.
That must be our bottom line in Kosovo, and one that will have to be made clear in the negotiations with the KLA and with Moscow when it attends the G8 summit to press for debt relief next week. The Russians stole a march on Nato by getting to Kosovo first. Good luck to them - they need the fillip more than we do. But the West must show that it is prepared to fight the more significant battle for the values of liberal and tolerant society throughout Europe. What was it all about, if not that?Reuse content