The diplomacy that preceded Yugoslavia’s apparent capitulation to NATO’s terms is still mysterious. The movements of the principals–Strobe Talbott of the United States, Martti Ahtisaari of the European Union and Viktor Chernomyrdin of Russia–were carefully charted, but the content of their discussions has been only sketchily revealed. The answer to the central question–what motivated Slobodan Milosevic to yield–is known only in Belgrade. So it is not now possible to judge whether Russia’s role was vital, or merely important, or perhaps essentially peripheral to the result.

It is clear, however, that the diplomatic bridge between NATO and Russia that had been burned at the outset of the bombing campaign has been reconstructed. It’s not much of a bridge, no George Washington or Golden Gate, more like something Indiana Jones would tip-toe out on at the end of the second reel. But for Russia’s more intrepid leaders, the connection to the West is there to be used.

Intrepid, because venturing out on the bridge means certain scorn at home. There are plenty of bridge-burners on the Russian side, politicians and military officers who have always seen the West as the real enemy and blame Chernomyrdin for a sell-out. Anonymous military members of Chernomyrdin’s delegation told the Russian press that Chernomyrdin “handed the solution of the Kosovo problem over to NATO’s generals” and “violated the principles” of Russia’s position. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov accused Chernomyrdin of ignoring his instructions. Vladimir Lukin, the chairman of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, a member of the center-right Yabloko faction and a former ambassador to the United States, said more mildly that “several points Russia insisted on” were not “pushed through.”

There is plenty of truth in Lukin’s statement. Chernomyrdin in a signed opinion piece in the May 27 Washington Post denounced nearly all the elements of the peace plan for which he now takes credit. (Of Chernomyrdin’s May 27 effort, American Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott remarked: “I disagree with everything in his article, including the punctuation points.”) But there are indications that in the following days both President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin agreed to accept NATO demands for full Yugoslav withdrawal, a NATO-led security force and no prior pause in the bombing. Ominously for Chernomyrdin, neither has taken a public position on the agreement with Yugoslavia or on Chernomyrdin’s performance. Whatever instructions they may have given they are positioned to repudiate.

Russia’s role will be tested quickly in the weeks ahead in the United Nations and on the ground in Kosovo. In the United Nations, the NATO countries intend to seek a resolution to give retroactive legitimacy to their attack. If Russia follows the foreign policy laid out by former prime minister and foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, it will join (or lead) China, India, Iran and others in condemning NATO for violations of the UN Charter and for interference in sovereign Yugoslavia’s internal affairs. With Primakov gone, however, Russia’s UN stance is less certain.

On the ground in Kosovo, incorporating Russian troops in an international security force that NATO controls will be complex and troublesome at best. It may prove impossible. Few if any Russian civilian or military leaders would accept placing Russian forces under NATO commanders. NATO commanders may not trust Russian forces to do their bidding, or to refrain from criminal activity. Returning refugees may feel almost as threatened by Russian soldiers as by Serbs. The money to support even a small Russian force could be a problem as well. If a “NATO-at-its-core” force does enter Kosovo in the days ahead, Russian participation in that force will take extraordinary effort and compromise on all sides.