Russia and U.S. are close to clash in the U.N. Security Council on the grounds of U.S.-backed plan that would grant independence to Serbia's breakaway province Kosovo. This diplomatic deadlock could unleash renewed violence.
Washington is pushing a Security Council resolution which it hopes would lead to Kosovo's quick split from Serbia. Russia, a traditional Serb ally, is threatening to block the plan.
The impasse is the latest irritant in relations between the United States and Russia, which is reasserting itself on the international stage largely through its influence as an energy giant. Other high-profile disagreements include U.S. plans to station elements of an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Russia's support for breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova.
The European Union is seeking to break the deadlock by offering Serbia the prospect of quick membership in the 27-nation bloc if it drops its opposition to the U.N. draft. EU foreign ministers are meeting with their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday in Luxembourg to try to reconcile differences.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said this week that the United States considers independence the only option for the predominantly Muslim region, and has suggested that Washington may recognize Kosovo's split even if Russia vetoes the U.N. plan in the Security Council.
But Lavrov responded in Belgrade on Thursday by noting that unilateral recognition would "endanger the stability" of the Balkans - scene in the 1990s the worst carnage in Europe since World War II - and would be "absolutely unacceptable."
Kosovo has been under U.N. and NATO administration since a 78-day NATO-led air war that halted a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999 that killed 10,000 people and left nearly a million displaced.
Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, have for decades been seeking independence from Belgrade. But Serbia and Kosovo's Serb minority say the province is the heart of their medieval homeland and must remain within its borders.
Moscow's position is that the U.N. proposal on Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent for separatists elsewhere in the world by dismembering a sovereign U.N. member against its government's will.
Russia supports Serbia's stand to continue negotiating with rival Kosovo Albanians to reach a compromise, something Washington says is impossible after more than a year of deadlock.
Burns said that delaying Kosovo's independence "would lead to more violence, rather than less" - an assertion Lavrov dismissed as "blackmail."
Burns also hinted that the U.S. would support a declaration of independence by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament.
"We expect that Kosovo's leaders will subsequently declare their independence," Burns said. "The U.S. and other countries will then recognize the new state."
Belgrade officials, who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Russia is suggesting to the Serbian officials to move some 200 of its police and military staff into the Serb-populated northern Kosovo regions in case the province's independence is recognized without the U.N. Council's consent, an apparent move to keep at least a part of Kosovo under its control.
"You know what that would trigger?" said a ranking Western diplomat, indicating that NATO and EU troops stationed in Kosovo would have to respond with force against the Serbian incursion.