War In The Balkans: Why West had to bring the Russians on side

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THE FOREIGN ministers of the Group of Eight major powers have not solved the Kosovo crisis. But they have taken a vital first step by at last bringing the United Nations into play as an instrument of pressure upon President Slobodan Milosevic. In doing so, they not only mended fences with Russia; they have also mended fences among themselves.

The West's ever more zealous courting of Russia over Kosovo has not been solely to soothe Moscow's feelings and remove what was never a realistic threat of direct Russian involvement in the war. Its purpose has been, first and foremost, to remove the threat of a Russian veto in the UN Security Council.

Whenever and however a Kosovo settlement comes, whether imposed by force or conceded by Mr Milosevic, everyone has accepted that it must be under the aegis of the UN. The absence of specific UN authorisation is the reason many Nato countries refuse to embark upon a ground war; indeed it caused many of them misgivings about about launching the bombing campaign. These doubts will now be assuaged.

There will, of course, not now be a Security Council resolution endorsing a land invasion. But whatever resolution does emerge from the laborious and delicate drafting that now begins will have the backing of Russia.

China also wields a veto, but Western diplomats believe that if Moscow gives its assent, Peking will not interfere. "The Chinese as a rule only use a veto when their direct national interests are threatened," one official says. In short, since last night the diplomatic pressure on the Yugoslav president has increased sharply. Conceivably, too, the increased isolation could open latent fissures in the Belgrade regime.

But it is far too early to cry victory. Financial as well as diplomatic factors may be nudging Russia towards the Western position on Kosovo. In public, however, Moscow yesterday sounded rather less co-operative than Nato officials claim they are in private.

Publicly, for instance, Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister who will be in Britain this weekend for talks with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, is still maintaining that no peacekeeping force should enter Kosovo without the approval of President Milosevic, nor does he seem keen on a Nato "core" to the force, as the alliance insists.

And, while the Yugoslav leader may have come round to the notion of an international force, he insists that it should be only very lightly armed, and with a Nato component somewhere between the negligible and the non- existent.

Other thorny points at issue include what, if any, Yugoslav troops will be permitted to stay in a post-war Kosovo, and the status of the province. But here again the involvement of the UN is crucial. A protectorate imposed and policed by Nato would be unacceptable to Mr Milosevic - and to the Russians. But an "interim mandate" operated by the UN might just be so.

Coinciding as it did with the re-emergence of the Kosovo Albanians' long-eclipsed political leader, Ibrahim Rugova, the G8 gathering in Bonn just might mark a turning point.