War in Europe: Anyone got a better idea?

After six weeks of air strikes, ethnic cleansing, atrocities, sanctions and diplomcy, a breakthrough in Kosovo still appears elusive.
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The Independent Online
Measure the progress of a war by the weirdness of its language. Any lingering doubts that the Kosovo conflict is not going to plan were banished by the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, on Friday. Nato's bombing, he argued, had achieved a war aim by "disrupting the violence" against the wretched Kosovo Albanians. Not ending the violence (the object of the war), nor even reducing it, but "disrupting" it - as if violence was not already disruptive enough.

Almost six weeks of airstrikes have undoubtedly caused severe damage to Yugoslavia's military installations. There has been much destruction of its civilian infrastructure, and the inconveniences and shortages faced by the civilian population are growing daily. But there is no sign that the army has been crippled, that the country's will to resist has been broken or - however fervently Mr Robertson and Mr Cook predict it - that disaffected generals, convinced that President Milosevic is leading the country to ruin, are about to rise and overthrow him. The swift dismissal of Vuk Draskovic, the troublesome deputy prime minister, is proof that hardliners are in the ascendant. As for the military, Mr Milosevic seems to have taken care, before the bombing began, to remove any commanders who might have, to borrow Mrs Thatcher's phrase, "gone wobbly". So where do we go from here?

Nato, basically, has three choices: step up the air war in the hope that "something will turn up" in Belgrade; prepare for a ground war, the option that would guarantee victory; or declare a spurious victory and negotiate a solution that will fall short of its demands with a man most of its leaders believe must be removed from power..

The obvious course, and the one that will be followed, is to keep bombing. Amazingly, after some 6,000 sorties, Nato has lost just one plane and not a single pilot. From the body-bag perspective, therefore, airstrikes fit the bill. They have, however, two drawbacks. One lies in the military adage that air power alone never won a war.The other is more insidious, and more dangerous: the vagaries of a public opinion accustomed to the quick fix. Thus far the Serbs have played into Nato's hands, quenching doubts about a seemingly endless bombing campaign by perpetrating some new atrocity. But it may not always be so.

After another month of airstrikes, a few hundred more Serb civilian casualties, and no end in sight for the sufferings of the Albanians, who knows? The public may be demanding an end, any end, so long as it is an end. Nato then will face the crunch: go in on the ground, or get serious about a diplomatic solution. Neither looks feasible.

The reason why last weekend's Washington summit can be counted a relative success was because the land-war issue was never raised. Subsequent events have shown why. Germany has made clear it will not send in combat troops under any circumstances. France will not do so without a UN resolution. Greece, logistically vital for the easiest route for a ground invasion, through Macedonia, has said it will not co-operate. A string of Congressional votes last week showed how ambivalent the US is about deeper involvement in a European war - which that master of ambivalence, William Jefferson Clinton, can be relied upon to speedily reflect. Which leaves Britain, once again verbally punching above its military weight, with too small an army to do the job on its own.

So to the final option, diplomacy. It means negotiation with an adversary who seems to have his own public opinion squarely behind him, who is well aware of the facts listed above, and who knows that even if some new atrocity tips the balance in favour of a ground war, it cannot happen until late June at the earliest. In fact, indirect contacts have already begun, via the Russians. However loudly he insists he is not Nato's postman, Viktor Chernomyrdin is exactly that. Barely 48 hours before meeting Mr Milosevic in Belgrade, Moscow's envoy had held talks with the US deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, in Moscow. After the talks, he will inform the West what Belgrade is ready to accept. And so, in fits and starts, the process will continue, again with huge question marks.

A chasm divides the two sides, even before they address the longer-term issues of Kosovo's future status, or its possible partition. While Nato proclaims that there will be no pause in the bombing until Mr Milosevic starts to pull his forces out, Belgrade (and Moscow) are adamant that nothing can be done until the airstrikes stop. The disagreement over the make-up of a peacekeeping force is no less: call it a UN force if you like, says Nato, but we must provide its core. To which the Yugoslavs reply that no country that took part in the bombing need apply, and that in any case the force will be lightly armed and civilian. Hardly enough to reassure the displaced Kosovars. And if they do not go home, Nato will have been defeated.

There is moreover the small matter of the Russians. Their head may be with Nato, but their heart and their obsessions are with their fellow Orthodox Slavs, victims in Moscow's eyes of Nato's secret grand design of advancing eastward towards its borders. And in any case, will Mr Milosevic listen to them ? So far he has not, confident that Nato's unity will dissolve before that of his own people.

Thus, barring a coup de theatre in Belgrade, the war will drag on. Come summer, the bombs will probably still be falling and Mr Milosevic will be unbowed. "Disrupted violence" will still be inflicting unspeakable miseries on the Kosovo Albanians left in the province, and Mr Robertson will be performing verbal gymnastics to explain it all away.