Former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s special envoy on Balkan affairs, doesn’t smile often. But he had to be pleased when foreign ministers of the Group of Seven rich industrial countries, speaking as a practical matter for NATO, agreed on May 6 to a joint statement on Kosovo that Russia could sign and bring to Belgrade. For Chernomyrdin, it is a big payoff for two weeks of shuttle diplomacy covering Moscow, Belgrade, Washington, New York and Bonn. How did Russia and the NATO countries come together? Russia is considering political union with Yugoslavia while NATO makes war against it. Not much room for compromise there, one might think.

President Bill Clinton, traveling in Germany, was eager to stress Russia’s movement toward NATO positions. He remarked on Russian willingness “for the first time” to state publicly that an international security (that is, armed) force is needed in Kosovo.

Russia, which is part of the armed peacekeeping force in Bosnia and supported the Kosovo peace agreement which Yugoslavia rejected in February, has never been as close to Slobodan Milosevic as public rhetoric suggests. But what really broke the tension was the NATO decision to soak its once rigid positions in a warm bath of ambiguity, achieving enough apparent flexibility to make even stone-faced Chernomyrdin relaxed and comfortable.

The joint statement lists seven “general principles” for a settlement of the conflict in Kosovo: (1) an “effective international civil and security presence;” (2) a verifiable end to the violence; (3) withdrawal of military police and paramilitary forces; (4) establishment of an interim administration; (5) “safe and free” return of refugees; (6) economic aid; and (7) “substantial self-government” with preservation of Yugoslav “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Ambiguities? There is no reference to any NATO element in the security force, no indication of the extent or timing of the Yugoslav withdrawal and no indication when NATO would stop the bombing. Nor is there any hint whether these principles will be imposed by force if Yugoslavia (or, for that matter, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which chokes on Yugoslav sovereignty) does not consent to their implementation.

This vague joint statement is now likely to become the basis for a run at a United Nations Security Council resolution that would retroactively legitimize NATO’s air campaign and prospectively legitimize international administration of Kosovo. The NATO countries and Russia may seek UN backing before attempting to negotiate a settlement with Yugoslavia. China could be difficult to win over.

The ambiguities and gaps in the joint statement leave plenty of room for maneuver, with Russia now very much at the hub of the negotiations. While the diplomatic game continues, so does NATO’s war in the air and Serbia’s war on the ground. The chance of returning substantial numbers of refugees to Kosovo before the winter meanwhile diminishes.