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Wednesday evening, NATO attacked a sovereign nation for the first time in the alliance’s 50-year history. The initial strikes against Yugoslavia, carried out by B-2 “stealth” bombers and cruise missiles, were designed to suppress air-defense systems and other military targets and are the first steps in a campaign that is expected to last several days. They were launched reluctantly, after months of failed negotiations with Yugoslav authorities that were intended to end the government’s war against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.

There must be no mistake. Responsibility for this attack lies squarely in Belgrade. The government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has defied Western efforts to bring peace to Kosovo. Instead, it has reinforced its security presence in the troubled province and engaged in a ruthless campaign against Albanian separatists and anyone suspected of providing them support. In more than a year of fighting, over 2,000 Kosovars have been killed — many in savage fashion — and hundreds of thousands of others have been driven from their homes. Accusations of war crimes have already been raised against Serb forces in the region.

“Operation Allied Force” has been justified on two grounds: averting a human catastrophe and preventing a wider war. Both are reasonable arguments; both are applicable in this case. But there is a third reason as well: Western credibility. Throughout the months of negotiations over Kosovo, the West threatened the use of military force if peace talks broke down. Apparently, the Yugoslav government did not take that option seriously. It is now paying the price for its defiance.

The problem for all concerned is that no one can foresee how high that price will ultimately be. For now, all NATO members are united behind the military action. The German government, including its Green coalition partners, has given unqualified support for the move. Even France, which has expressed doubts in the past about the efficacy of airstrikes, supports the campaign. But in one indication of potential trouble ahead, Austria refused to let NATO aircraft use its airspace, citing the alliance’s failure to obtain formal approval from the United Nations Security Council for the action.

NATO’s unwillingness to go to the Security Council also troubles Mr. Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general. While he acknowledged that “there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace,” Mr. Annan also pointed out that “under the Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining pace and security…. The council should be involved in any decision to resort to the use of force.”

The problem with that logic is that it gives Russia a veto over any NATO move, and that government has made it abundantly clear that, for all its frustrations with Mr. Milosevic in recent weeks, it would block any action against Yugoslavia. Russian President Boris Yeltsin condemned the strikes, halted cooperation with NATO and pulled his country out of the alliance’s Partnership for Peace program. How far Russia will go in its support of the Serbs is unclear. The speed with which Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov abandoned his trip to Washington, as well as postponing talks with the International Monetary Fund over desperately needed funds, signals the depths of Moscow’s irritation with the campaign.

While the prospect of a breakdown in relations with Russia must surely trouble NATO officials, there is another, more immediate problem: the lack of a clearly defined exit strategy. Airstrikes alone are unlikely to compel Belgrade to return to the negotiating table. There is an ominous precedent: A campaign of attrition has proven unsuccessful in forcing Iraq’s leadership to accept U.N. resolutions. The terrain and conditions in Yugoslavia will make NATO’s objective even harder to achieve. Moreover, Russia may decide to withdraw from the international arms embargo against Yugoslavia, which could give Belgrade the lifeline it needs to hold out. Without the introduction of ground troops — a move that every NATO government has already ruled out — there is little hope of forcing Mr. Milosevic back to the table.

He knows well NATO’s limits; it is unclear whether NATO knows his. The Yugoslav president has proven surprisingly willing to bring hardship upon his country. He has also proven to be a masterful tactician. This time he may have miscalculated, however. We will soon find out. A fearless and foolish leader would threaten to widen the war; a real leader would sue for peace. The moment of decision is upon Mr. Milosevic.

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