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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON YUGOSLAV REPUBLIC

Will NATO Visit Budapest '56 on Kosovo?

U.S.-Russia diplomacy should devise a global approach to Yugoslav issues. A military threat is hollow.

July 03, 1998|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter, senior advisor at Rand Corp. in Washington, was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993-1998

In October 1956, Radio Free Europe broadcast messages of hope to the Hungarian freedom fighters; but help never came to beleaguered Budapest. Today, NATO risks repeating that mistake by making unrealistic promises of military action to rescue the Albanian population of Kosovo.

Allied leaders, both civilian and military, assert that "time is running out," that "NATO is getting ready to act" and that Serbian belligerence in Kosovo "will not be permitted to continue." As of now, however, there is little chance that these pledges will be redeemed.

The first constraint is military. No ally is prepared to risk lives by deploying forces on the ground. But allied military leaders have also made clear that the less-risky alternative--the use of air power in Kosovo--must be preceded by the crippling of Serbia's formidable air defense system. NATO air power cannot be limited to pinpoint attacks on Serb artillery besieging Albanian Kosovars; the first strike must be against air defenses and communications all across Yugoslavia, including Belgrade airport.

A more critical constraint is political: finding a legal mandate for action. The United States argues that NATO can draw upon the implicit authority of the United Nations' charter. Most of the other allies disagree. To gain political support at home, they insist on having a resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council. But Russia has made clear it will cast a veto.

Many allies also worry that Kosovo is different from Bosnia, where NATO has been engaged for 2 1/2 years. Kosovo is not a sovereign state, but a recognized part of the Yugoslav Republic. Using force there without a valid mandate would set an enormous precedent for other parts of the world.

NATO has thus effectively checkmated itself, and assertions to the contrary do not impress the Serb leadership. NATO's deliberations are virtually transparent to President Slobodan Milosevic, who for years has read allied intentions accurately. He understands that the appearance of 13 allied air forces in the skies over Albania and Macedonia on June 15 was a potent demonstration of NATO's military capabilities; but he also understands that, without a U.N. mandate, this bark will produce no bite.

Many NATO observers now hope against hope that the Kosovo Liberation Army will resolve the allies' dilemma by prevailing militarily on the ground, while the Serbs lose the stomach for further conflict. Maybe this will happen, producing an independent Kosovo. But it is equally plausible that Kosovo Albanians who are emboldened by NATO's talk of military action will merely provoke more slaughter by a Serbia bent on retaining its historic position in Kosovo. Hope is a poor substitute for policy, and so far the alliance has been further hampered by the lack of clear political and diplomatic goals.

Like it or not, Russia has become the key. Many allies resist this conclusion because it implies that Moscow has a veto over allied action. But it is one thing to oppose a Russian say on NATO's expansion, its military infrastructure or its cooperation with states in Central Europe; it is quite another to ask Russia to help stop conflict in a critical part of Europe that lies beyond formal NATO territory. It is time for Russia to be weaned from its support for a losing cause in Serbia that it maintains out of some romantic notion of shared Orthodoxy, 19th-century alliance and perverse satisfaction at Western discomfort.

The U.S. should reassert its leadership. This means pressing Moscow directly as well as the states that now meet from time to time on Balkan issues, the so-called Contact Group of U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia. They should be charged to meet nonstop until they agree on a formula for Kosovo's future, ideally one of several varieties of autonomy within the Yugoslav Republic.

NATO-Russia diplomacy also should look more broadly, at long last devising a global approach for all remaining issues in the former Yugoslavia. This should include the stringent conditions the Yugoslav Republic must fulfill in order to be fully integrated in European civil society. But if Belgrade refuses a reasonable offer, it should be confirmed in its economic and political backwater, subject to sanctions that isolate it firmly from Central Europe's rising economic and political promise.

If Russia refuses to help either in Kosovo or in shaping a global settlement over the former Yugoslavia, then the U.S. will have a stronger case for advocating NATO military action in Kosovo. We could better argue that seeking a Security Council resolution must give way to other compelling principles, including those in the Helsinki Final Act, that cry out against Serbian outlawry. NATO would then have a chance to redeem its pledges and reassert its relevance in the Balkans.

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