A draft agreement worked out by both defence ministers - William Cohen and Igor Sergeyev - in 30 hours of haggling reportedly gave Russian troops a stake in three of the five zones administered by Nato in Kosovo. Reports said the number of Russians was put at 3,000 - less than a third of the number Moscow had said it was prepared to send.
Last night Nato sources said agreement on this had been reached but they were contradicted by the White House, which said it remained undecided. But the mood was optimistic, suggesting a deal will come soon, before Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin meet at the G8 summit in Germany tomorrow. "They've got almost all the issues resolved," Mr Clinton said in Cologne yesterday. He went on to say that "we must not make any decisions (about Russian participation) that in any way, shape or form undermines the ability of the Kosovars and their willingness to go home. I expect we'll get this worked out today."
One issue above all that has placed fresh strains on Russia's relations with the West at a particularly critical time in the Balkans was still apparently unresolved: Mr Yeltsin's demand that Russia must have sector of its own.
However, although the final deal remained tantalisingly elusive, a broad outline was slowly emerging from Helsinki. Under it, Moscow has been offered a continuing role in administering Pristina airport, seized early last Saturday by 200 Russian paratroops.
Nato is expected to control air operations at the base, while the Russians would run ground operations, including maintenance and protocol.
Complex command and control arrangements were also taking shape, seemingly based on the model tried in Bosnia, where Russia has 1,500 peace-keepers. Under these, a Russian commander would answer to commanders of the French, German and US sectors - the zones in which the Russians are expected to be distributed.
But this would be on a bilateral basis, and passed on up to Nato command.
This formula - under which the alliance keeps de facto control - is a fudge, to allow the Russians to claim they are on an equal footing and not under direct Nato command. In addition, there will be Russian liaison missions with K-For's command in Kosovo and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium.
Nato has consistently argued against a Russian sector, saying it would become a magnet for Serbs, producing de facto partition and a potential flashpoint with the Kosovo Liberation Army. Even if Mr Yeltsin concedes defeat - as seems likely in the end - that will not be a total defeat.
In the past week he has served the international community notice, in typically flamboyant fashion, of Moscow's sense of grievance over Kosovo. Russia believes it played a prominent - perhaps even indispensable - part in getting Slobodan Milosevic to sign up to a peace deal, only to be ungratefully elbowed aside by the alliance.
The occupation of Pristina airport restored Moscow to centre-stage, even though it quickly became clear that Moscow's soldiers were ill-prepared for the stunt - and had to beg water from British troops.
Had the Russians not moved into Kosovo, beating Nato troops to Pristina, it is a sure bet that Moscow would not have been accorded the global attention it has received over the past few days.
All this was done from a strikingly weak position. The 3,000 troops Moscow will now have in Kosovo are probably all the Russian government could, in fact, afford - despite Marshal Sergeyev's claims that he was ready to send up to 10,000.Reuse content