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Rethinking the Unthinkable: Waging a Kosovo Ground War


WASHINGTON — Fast-moving events far from Yugoslavia, culminating in Thursday's indictment of President Slobodan Milosevic on war crimes charges, point increasingly in the direction of a NATO ground invasion of Kosovo.

There's only one catch: NATO is as determined as ever to avoid that route.

The new pressure for a ground war is unmistakable.

The indictment makes it immeasurably more difficult for President Clinton to resolve the crisis using a combination of continuing airstrikes and diplomacy.

It removes any incentive for Milosevic to seek peace. And even if he were willing to negotiate, North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders would find him a distasteful figure to face across a bargaining table.

Milosevic's indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia coincided with a broadside from Moscow at diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Russia's special envoy for the Kosovo crisis, former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, writing in the Washington Post, delivered an imitation of old-fashioned, Soviet-style saber-rattling.

If NATO does not promptly suspend its air war, Chernomyrdin said, "I shall advise Russia's president to suspend Russian participation in the negotiating process, put an end to all military technological cooperation with the United States and Western Europe, put off the ratification of START II [arms reduction treaty] and use Russia's veto as the United Nations debates a resolution on Yugoslavia."

The decision to air his views in the pages of a major U.S. newspaper was interpreted by some analysts as an attempt to play on NATO's public frustration that more than two months of bombings have produced little political movement. It was also viewed as a sign of Chernomyrdin's own frustration at the lack of progress in the negotiating process, a sentiment intensified by Thursday's indictment.

"Obviously, the Russians are concerned that their engagement is going to get harder as a result of the indictment," a senior White House official said.

Andrei V. Kortunov, president of the Russian Science Foundation think tank, said, "Moscow has been trying hard to find some compromise options, [but] what negotiations can the world conduct with a war criminal?"

NATO's hawks hope that the indictment will stiffen resolve among hesitant allies at a time that the Clinton administration's collective body language seems to be listing heavily toward seeking a deal that might shave at least some corners from the alliance's five agreed goals. These include the withdrawal of all Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo and a robust international security force with NATO troops at its core to keep the peace in the southern province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, once the fighting ends.

"It will reduce the temptation to do a shabby deal," one European diplomat noted.

"It's an international stamp of approval for NATO's actions," a White House official added. "If there were any doubts about what we are doing, this should remove them."

Even before Milosevic's indictment, observers were insisting stridently that it would take a ground invasion to end the war.

Such talk has been conspicuously absent, however, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and at the White House.

Not even Britain, easily the most assertive NATO member, favors a full-scale land war. But Britain's more modest proposal--that NATO prepare to send in ground troops, even without a diplomatic settlement, once the organized Yugoslav resistance in Kosovo is broken by airstrike--generated some sharp words across the Atlantic.

The reasons for the obvious lack of enthusiasm for a ground force are threefold:

* A ground invasion of Kosovo would be extremely difficult militarily. The terrain is hostile and the region remote. Supply lines for any ground force would be long and tenuous. Macedonia has said it would not permit a NATO invasion from its territory. Albania, the alternative, has a total of three paved roads into Kosovo across a long, mountainous frontier.

* NATO's biggest member, the U.S., appears allergic even to planning for such a contingency. As political momentum seemed to be building within the alliance in favor of an invasion in advance of last month's NATO summit in Washington, the White House preempted a formal discussion.

* Domestic public opinion and other constraints in many alliance countries work against the logic of invasion. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer reminded reporters in Washington this week that Germany is politically unable to have its 5,000 troops--which are in the region to enforce a possible peace agreement--used for combat.

In Greece, where opinion polls show that more than 90% of respondents oppose NATO's air campaign, the government would almost surely fall if it let the alliance use the most suitable port in the region, Thessaloniki, for an armed intervention. There is similar reluctance in Hungary, which is aware of the implications for the large Hungarian minority in northern Yugoslavia.

For all these reasons, even the weight of Thursday's events did not reshape the rhetoric of senior U.S. officials--at least initially.

Clinton, traveling in Florida, conferred by phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac after the indictment was announced.

Then White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart reaffirmed Clinton's belief that "the air campaign will meet our military objectives."


Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Washington, Maura Reynolds in Moscow and John-Thor Dahlburg in The Hague and researcher Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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