The challenge facing William Cohen and Madeleine Albright when they meet their Russian opposite numbers Igor Sergeyev and Igor Ivanov in Helsinki is to find a formula that satisfies Russia's pride and its demand to play a major role in a post-war Kosovo yet endorses Nato's refusal to countenance a specific Russian "sector" that would lead to what amounted to partition of the province.
To listen to those most closely involved in the stand-off around Pristina airport - since Friday controlled by 200 to 300 Russian paratroops - a deal would seem to be within reach that might allow 7,000 Russian troops to be flown into the Kosovo capital to join the 50,000 K-For soldiers who will be deployed in the province.
In Paris the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, predicted that a deal would be done before the G8 summit, where Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton are to meet.
Similar optimism was voiced by Sergei Stepashin, the Russian Prime Minister, who said "all frictions we had" would be over before the end of the week - a reference not just to frictions between Nato and Moscow but between Russia's hardline military establishment and its more acquiescent diplomats over tactics in Kosovo.
One possibility, along the lines of the formula for Russia's involvement in the Bosnia peace-keeping operation, could see them formally reporting to the commander of a Finnish contingent, thus meeting their insistence on staying outside the Nato command structure. But a Moscow defence ministry spokesman last night seemed to reject that option.
Other suggestions were that the Russians could be spread across Kosovo, sufficiently diluted to prevent the emergence of a single sector.
In the meantime, refusals by Hungary and Bulgaria to grant air corridors prevent the Russian military from taking matters into its own hands and simply ferrying extra troops into Kosovo airport. In their absence, the contingent on the ground is too small to have much impact on proceedings, allied officials say.
Indeed, they are already running into typically Russian supply problems. Last night a convoy of trucks was en route from Bosnia to Pristina bringing food, money and other necessities, but not before the unit had to ask British forces around the airport for water. "We will be sending them water," Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Clissit, a British army spokesman, said.Reuse content