By Simon Tisdall
The west has consistently underestimated Russian resolve on Serbia's rights in Kosovo, and it looks like Vladimir Putin could raise the stakes again.
Exactly how far Russia will go in defence of Serbia's rights in Kosovo is a question of pressing importance, now UN security council negotiations to grant consensual, conditional independence to the breakaway province have ground to an ignominious halt.
Western countries including Britain and France - prime movers in the 1999 Nato intervention - have consistently underestimated Russian resolve on this issue. By tabling a UN resolution, they tried to call Moscow's bluff. But President Vladimir Putin icily stared them down. On Friday, they blinked first.
Previous miscalculations over Kosovo nearly caused a physical collision in June 1999, when Russian paratroopers made an overland dash to occupy Pristina airport, thereby pre-empting Nato's peacekeepers. General Wesley Clark, Nato supreme commander, ordered 500 British and French troops to bar their way.
A clash was narrowly avoided, in part because the British General Sir Mike Jackson, Kosovo force commander, reportedly told Gen Clark: "I'm not going to start the third world war for you."
The Russians were not wholly in the wrong. They had played a decisive role in cajoling the then Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, to withdraw his troops. In return they expected to police their own sector, most likely the ethnic Serb minority-dominated areas of northern Kosovo. When that was denied them, they felt cheated - and reacted accordingly.
A Russian commander, General Leonid Ivashov, later told the BBC that thousands of crack troops, including several battalions of paratroopers, were on two-hour standby at Russian airbases, poised to fly in if the confrontation with Nato escalated.
Looking at the latest chapter of the Kosovo saga, it seems obvious that Mr Putin, emboldened by Russia's economic and political resurgence, was always unlikely to take a softer line than his weak, discredited predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. If anything, he could raise the stakes yet further.
If really pushed, Moscow has a range of options. It could strengthen traditional political and military cooperation with Serbia's new government and support for Kosovo's Serb minority. It may finalise its withdrawal from the 1990 conventional forces in Europe treaty, potentially raising tensions across eastern Europe and the Balkans.
The Kosovo stand-off is already being conflated with the row over proposed US missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Retaliatory Russian missile deployments and retargeting along its western flank and in the Kaliningrad enclave are another possible part of a more broadly disquieting flux.
Sharpening disagreement may also encourage Serb nationalist and irredentist forces, barely beaten back at the last general election, and deepen Belgrade's EU ambivalence. In theory, Serbia hopes to sign a stabilisation and association agreement with Brussels in October - a first step to full membership.
But Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, warned that the EU was not everything. "The offer is like this: if you want Europe, you can forget Kosovo. If you want Kosovo, you can forget Europe. Things cannot be like that. It's indecent," he said last week.
"The grabbing of 15% of Serbia's territory and the formation of another Albanian state in the Balkans would represent legal violence and would have serious consequences," a joint Russia-Serbian statement said. The 1999 UN resolution recognising Kosovo as part of Serbia should be upheld.
Nor would Belgrade countenance attempts to cut a deal via the six-country Kosovo Contact Group, said Serbia's president, Boris Tadic. Only the security council could decide status issues. In an echo of Iraq, Russia's foreign ministry said: "Attempts to bypass the UN will contradict all international agreements on Kosovo, destabilise the Balkans and encourage separatists the world over."
Serbia says it simply wants talks without preconditions or assumptions. Yet far from seeking to calm matters in the wake of their UN debacle, it is as though the US and its partners have grown deaf as well as dumb. Echoing President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, insists: "We are committed to an independent Kosovo and we will get there one way or another".
Suggestions that Washington may ultimately override objections and unilaterally recognise Kosovan statehood have encouraged the province's ethnic Albanian majority leaders to toy with a declaration of independence in November - and fuelled grassroots tensions on both sides.
Amid rising concern that the Bush administration, with west European connivance, is acting irresponsibly, even recklessly, Ms Rice will follow a meeting with Kosovan leaders today with talks with Serbia's foreign minister in Washington later this week. The Contact Group, which includes Russia, is also due to meet in Berlin tomorrow (weds).
But all this is so much whistling in the dark. The fundamental disagreement on Kosovo's future, dating back to the summer of 1999, remains entrenched. And history suggests there may be more grave miscalculations to come.