Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said today that the United States and Russia were close to resolving their differences over Moscow's role in the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo and hope to conclude a package deal Thursday.
During more than seven hours of talks at the Finnish presidential palace, Cohen said he and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev made substantial progress toward a compromise that would reconcile NATO's insistence on maintaining a unified command with Russia's demand that its soldiers not be compelled to take orders from allied commanders.
The ministers planned to continue discussions here Thursday, when they will be joined by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Cohen said that while several points remain in dispute, he expected they could reach agreement Thursday so he could present the arrangements at a meeting Friday in Brussels of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's top policymaking body.
Cohen said he and Sergeyev spent "a very productive day" reviewing geographic responsibilities for peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, command-and-control questions and the presence of some 200 Russian soldiers at Pristina's airport, which they have sealed off.
The conflict is rooted in Moscow's refusal to let its soldiers answer to allied officers and its demand to patrol a sector in Kosovo that is independent of NATO's command. The alliance, which expects to deploy more than 50,000 troops in Kosovo, has divided the province into five sectors controlled by the United States, France, Britain, Italy and Germany.
U.S. officials said a potential solution could give Russia its own geographic "zone of responsibility" within a sector of Kosovo that is commanded by a NATO country. Alliance sources said one possibility would allow Russian troops to patrol in France's northern sector, where many Serbian Orthodox shrines are located, along with much of the province's Serbian minority.
Another option being raised would have Russian troops operate in conjunction with German officers in the southwestern sector around Prizren. But NATO sources said a disadvantage of having Russian soldiers in the German sector is that guerrillas from the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian rebel force fighting against Serbian rule, have been active in the area and could attack the Russians, who are regarded as allies of the Serbs.
The guerrillas do not pose as serious a risk in the northern French sector. Moreover, a Russian presence there could mollify Kosovo's Serbs, who distrust NATO's promises of even-handed treatment and fear they will suffer reprisals from the ethnic Albanian rebels.
But the United States and its allies have been wary of giving the Russians their own territory to control in the north because such an arrangement could lead quickly to a de facto partition of Kosovo, a development that would be reminiscent of the Cold War division of Germany.
CAPTION: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen says deal may be concluded today.
CAPTION: ALLIED SECTORS OF CONTROL (This graphic was not available)