Focus: War In Europe: Has Milosevic won?

He has resisted the mightiest military machine in history. If war-weariness tells on the West first, victory could be his by default. But Nato - especially the US - cannot afford to lose
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The Independent Online
The government executive jets criss-cross Europe. Statesmen great and small confer in half a dozen capitals. The tiniest shift in nuance on one side is inflated out of all proportion by the other. And in what remains of Yugoslavia, the bombs continue to fall.

But all the activity, military and now increasingly diplomatic, over Kosovo masks one simple, crucial, question. Who's going to fold their hand first - Nato or Slobodan Milosevic ?

After two months, for the generals, politicians and diplomats alike, the conflict has reached a turning point. The supposedly decisive air campaign has turned into a grinding war of attrition, wreaking huge physical destruction on Yugoslavia but still offering no promise of a decisive result any time soon.

And no bombing can change the rhythm of the seasons. If the object of the entire exercise, the return of a million dispossessed ethnic Albanians to their homes, is to be achieved before winter, the war must be over by the end of August. If that is to be done with ground troops, the build- up of extra forces must start within the next 10 days or fortnight at the latest. If Nato forces are able to go in without resistance after a diplomatic settlement, more time is available - but not a great deal.

However, a winter of rationing and little fuel, of power stations, factories, road and rail networks lying shattered beneath the snow, is an equally grim prospect for Mr Milosevic as he strives to keep his country united behind him. Hence the new tensions, the new urgency, on every front: the first peace feelers from Belgrade, the talk of desertions and civic unrest in Yugoslav towns, the widening cracks in Nato's facade of unity, the multiplying signs that in several allied countries, public opinion has had enough of the war. Thus the sudden late spring flowering of diplomacy.

For all the flap over a presumed Anglo-American split on the conduct of the war, Robin Cook's fence-mending trip to Washington on Thursday and Friday was ultimately a sideshow. The key action was elsewhere, on two separate but interconnected diplomatic salients. In Helsinki and then in Moscow, the Russian envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Strobe Talbott, US Deputy Secretary of State, have been trying to work out the exact composition of the international peacekeeping force that will go into Kosovo - trickiest of the host of tricky questions to be resolved before any settlement.

Afterwards Mr Talbott, whose close friendship with Bill Clinton and long experience of Russia make him increasingly the pivotal Western figure in the negotiations, claimed the talks had been "sufficiently constructive" for him to return to Moscow for another try this week. But in Bonn, top officials of the G-8 powers, comprising Russia and the major Western countries, twice met and twice failed to thrash out a draft UN Security Council resolution setting out the broad lines of a settlement. There is little likelihood of an agreed text soon; but without one, the crisis cannot be ended - unless Mr Milosevic calls it quits. But will he ?

In a sense, of course, the Yugoslav President has already won. The plight of his country, a pariah among nations even before the war started, may be desperate. But Mr Milosevic's goal is a modest one: to survive. Already, he can claim to have resisted the mightiest military machine in history for two whole months. Technically, moreover, when the war ends he will not even have lost Kosovo. Even when occupied by an international army, the province juridically will remain part of Yugo- slavia. Many of the expelled Albanians, with or without cast- iron guarantees of their long term security, will surely never return - meaning that the ethnic balance in the province will be less unfavourable to the Serbs.

Nor has the aerial pounding broken the back of his armed forces. For all the evidence of desertions and civil protest in Krusevac and Alexandrovac last week, Western military experts still put the Serbian presence in Kosovo at around 40,000, higher than when the bombing started. The unrest was said by some to have caused "panic" in the regime. Older Balkan hands quickly pointed out, however, that similar protests occurred during the Bosnian war, without great consequence for Mr Milosevic.

And if he needs encouragement, the state of his enemy would seem at first glance to offer it in abundance. To judge from the headlines, Nato is all over the shop. American leadership is conspicuous only by its absence. Britain and the US are said to be loggerheads, Germany had another public bout of jitters on Friday after the semi-hits on the Swedish and Swiss embassy residences in Belgrade, while the Italians, not to mention the Greeks, want a virtually unconditional end to the bombing.

Stick it out at the table a little longer, Mr Milosevic must sometimes be tempted to think, and victory by default will be his. War-weariness will floor Nato first - and produce a compromise that allows him, literally, to get away with murder. Hence the siren words from Belgrade, the professed willingness to find a political solution in Kosovo, just as soon as the bombing stops.

But Mr Milosevic would be unwise to bank on it. Despite what Tony Blair 10 days ago called "refugee fatigue" on the part of the Western media, and the undeniably numbing effect of atrocity piled upon atrocity, public opinion is more or less holding up behind the war.

In Britain and France, polls continue to show substantial majorities in favour of the bombing campaign, and only slightly smaller ones supporting a ground intervention if necessary. In America the pro-and anti- camps are roughly equal, while even Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, though flatly opposed to sending ground troops to fight their way into Kosovo, is unwavering in his belief that air strikes must continue until Serbian forces plainly start to pull out of Kosovo.

The Nato line, in short, holds. The shockwaves of the Chinese embassy debacle are receding - even in China itself, which once again seems ready to go along with whatever the Russians sign up to at the UN, instead of automatically using its veto to scupper any Security Council resolution. Some other horrific accident could produce sufficient public revulsion in the West to force a halt to the bombing, but failing that, each new raid will make daily life harder for the Serb population.

The chances, therefore, are that the peace talk in Belgrade will grow louder. Each foray to Belgrade by Mr Chernomyrdin will yield some new, if marginal, concession - which will enable Nato to claim that the pressure finally is starting to pay dividends; a little more and the job will be done.

The alliance's misfortune is to be saddled with a leader in President Clinton who, in the words of one former top Nato diplomat who often dealt with him, "is utterly ill-equipped by training and temperament to handle national security issues". Making matters worse, Mr Clinton threw away the second strongest card in his hand even before the game began, by ruling out a ground war.

It is still not quite too late to rectify that mistake. And he still holds his strongest card of all - Americans will put up with anything, except losers. Quite simply, this is a war which neither Nato nor Bill Clinton can afford to lose.