The talks between President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Ibrahim Rugova for the Kosovo Albanians mark the first time the two have agreed to meet, and take place as Serbia's rebellious southern province slides deeper towards a full-scale war that may be already too late to stop.
Mr Holbrooke cautioned against any expectation that the meeting will stop the violence that has claimed 150 lives - mostly Albanian - in the past few months. "The gulf between the two [Serb and Albanian] sides is as wide as ever," he said. "It could still escalate to something worse than Bosnia". But he insisted that President Milosevic - with whom he formed something of a bond in the run-up to the Bosnia deal - had accepted "personal responsibility" for finding a settlement.
Both sides have accepted a compromise. Mr Rugova had insisted no meeting could take place with the Serbs without the presence - as guarantor - of a third party from the international community. The Serbs offered only low-level meetings - representing their insistence that the Kosovo crisis was an internal Serbian matter. The first signs of concession may have come far too late.
Since Mr Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy within the old Yugoslavia 10 years ago and incorporated it into metropolitan Serbia he has refused to talk to serious representatives of the 90 per cent of Kosovo's 2 million population who are Albanian. Now everyone - both Serbs and Americans - wants to talk to Mr Rugova, the same man who has been consistently shunned and brushed aside by the West ever since the old Yugoslavia came crashing down in 1991.
The trouble is that he and his pacifist colleagues no longer hold much sway over Kosovo's Albanians, thousands of whom are active members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the shadowy armed body whose gunmen have seized control of large swathes of the province running along the mountainous border with Albania proper.
This week shootings and killings brought the flames of war licking the edges of the provincial capital, Pristina. To arrest this escalation of violence would be almost a miracle. Mr Rugova's only chance would be to pull off a lightning settlement with Belgrade that restores Kosovo's autonomy in full. Mr Milosevic's track record suggests he will never agree to such a climbdown and he may be merely trying to trick the West into lifting its recently imposed sanctions on Yugoslavia.