WAR IN THE BALKANS: Bombs that could hole the allies

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The Independent Online
ONE UNREMARKABLE building of the type to be found in any modern city, with windows of blue mirrored glass, and a red flag with five golden stars flying from its roof. Three bombs dropped by a single aircraft, possibly an American B-2 "stealth" bomber, the most expensive aircraft mankind has built, costing $2bn a copy. The result: just possibly the beginning of the end of Nato's attempt to impose its will over Kosovo by force.

For the Atlantic alliance, yesterday was the most ominous day yet in the campaign it launched seven weeks ago with the noblest of motives, to put an end to the monstrous repression of the Kosovo Albanians. An American president vacillates; Britain's government faces its strongest domestic criticism yet; the German government trembles, its ruling coalition strained close to breaking point.

Sensing his opponents' vulnerability, Slobodan Milosevic opens the bidding for a negotiated end to the war. And Nato's attempts to steer a settlement on to the safer ground of the United Nations now risk being held hostage by Russia and China, two great powers that have occasionally been its friends but, by history and world outlook, are instinctively its adversaries.

The air strike against the Chinese embassy in Belgrade confirms the first law of those who adhere to the cock-up theory in life: the more sophisticated the means to hand (in this case the intelligence- gathering capability of the CIA), the more elementary is likely to be the inevitable mistake (in this case, it would appear, relying on an out-of-date map - if only someone had slipped out to buy a Fodor's Yugoslavia 1999). It also constitutes an astonishing turning point in a war that has already seen several of them.

The bombing campaign that Nato misguidedly thought would wrap up matters in a few days has succeeded in transforming a dirty little conflict in a benighted south-eastern corner of Europe into a world war. Not of course a world war in the sense of the one ignited by other Balkan goings-on 85 years ago - but in the geographic sense of a European war whose successful prosecution may now depend upon decisions taken 6,000 miles away in the Far East, by a country that until Friday night had only the most academic of interest in Kosovo.

At first, as rioting swept the streets around the American, British and other Nato missions in Peking, the Chinese seemed to be walking a deliberate tightrope; sanctioning the protests, even breaking off trade and security talks with the US, but stopping short of threatening to interfere in the crucial work at the UN, where of course they have the right of veto. That fond hope vanished yesterday as Jiang Zemin, the Chinese President, declared that unless the alliance first stopped the bombing, Peking would prevent the Security Council from even discussing a plan to end the war.

Defiantly, Nato sticks to its mantra: the air strikes go on until Mr Milosevic "demonstrably" starts to withdraw all his troops from the province. At which point, with malign and practised timing, the Yugoslav President delivers a new gambit - announcing a partial troop withdrawal, as of Sunday evening, that apparently would reduce their number to that of the eve of the bombing.

Britain, the US and Germany instantly rejected the concession as too little, insisting the strikes would continue until Nato's five conditions were met. But doubts may have been sown, widening the cracks on Nato's home front.

For the first time yesterday in the Commons since the war began, bipartisanship splintered as the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, called the embassy bombing "an act of gross incompetence" and suggested that "the action is being made up as we go along and has not been properly thought through". Mainstream Labour's indignation was predictable. Even so, in the country that has consistently been most hawkish on Kosovo, the exchange was noteworthy.

In Germany, by contrast, the cracks are visible and gaping. A malicious fate has decreed that the first Nato leader in Peking since the fiasco will be Gerhard Schroder, fighting to keep an ever more rebellious Green party within his government. The Chancellor, who has been peremptorily told to leave behind the imposing delegation of businessmen that was to accompany him, and to come for just one day instead of five, will undoubtedly be sent home with an unnerving scolding.

All this too, on the eve of a special Green party conference that at the very least will vent fierce misgivings at the war - misgivings now shared by a section of the Chancellor's own Social Democrat Party. If public scepticism here is starting to grow, in Germany it is becoming deafening.

Yet the ground war that offers the best guarantee of Nato securing its five points looks less likely than ever. If the refugees are to start going home before the winter, a land operation must start by the end of July at the latest. Thus far, despite an extra 1,000 troops here, an extra 2,000 there, no coherent build-up appears even to have begun. Given the required lead time of at least two months, 31 May constitutes a kind of deadline. Almost certainly, it will not be met.

"A kind of Catch-22 prevails," notes Anatole Lieven of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The air war is becoming increasingly unpopular, but - with the possible exception of Britain - no one is getting more enthusiastic about a ground war." That bleak analysis applies above all to the US, without whose participation a ground war is inconceivable. Alas, malicious fate has also decreed that America's leader should be a man disqualified by his own record from leading the country into a conflict where lives will be lost.

So the chimera will be pursued, of a war which must be won comprehensively, but without Western casualties. Ineluctably, the trail is leading to the UN, whose cover even Nato countries accept is essential for the diplomatic endgame to be played out. Short of a popular uprising in Belgrade, or a bomb on Milosevic as lucky as the one on the Chinese embassy was unlucky, it is far harder to construct a scenario for Nato securing the terms it is demanding.

Almost impudently, President Milosevic, responsible for savagery unknown in Europe for 50 years, ignores the West's demands for a strongly armed, Nato-led peace-keeping force. His latest offer, relayed via Yasushi Akashi, the former UN envoy to Yugoslavia, apparently is acceptance of a UN-led force, lightly armed, and containing no soldiers from Nato countries.

The allies doggedly insist that American, British and French forces will be at its core but, even with an ambiguous UN resolution, the chances of having their way have surely been diminished by the events of the last 72 hours.

The mission of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian envoy, has acquired fresh weight. Subtly, he has been transformed, from Nato's postman to Mr Milosevic, into a potential independent peace-maker, with new room to navigate between the two sides - his own calls for an end to the bombing now reinforced by the President of distant China.

Nato may yet prevail. But a trio of bombs on a building in Belgrade has made the task infinitely more difficult. If only someone had bought a Fodor's.