In the next few weeks, NATO will make a fateful decision on whether to send to the Balkans a ground force potent enough to retake Kosovo.

The rapid decision is necessitated by the substantial number of months it would take to assemble the force before the onset of the Balkan winter in October.

There are a number of severe problems with assembling a force and invading the province, starting with the immense political ramifications. U.S. relations with Russia--already strained by the air war--could be damaged for years to come.

The Russians have already abandoned military-to-military planning for a U.S.-Russian center to share early warning data on potential attacks by nuclear missiles. The center was to have been part of a broader effort to combat Y2K glitches in the decrepit Russian early warning system.

Several brushes with accidental nuclear war that were caused by breakdowns in the Russian warning system may pale in comparison with what could happen at the turn of the century if all cooperation between the United States and Russia is terminated.

In addition, any ground attack on Kosovo might erode Russian and Chinese willingness to help stanch the flow of their nuclear, chemical, biological and missile technology to rogue states.

“Winning” a small civil war in Kosovo is not worth the increased risk of an accidental nuclear war, more rapid proliferation of missiles and other weapons of mass destruction--or a new Cold War with two nuclear powers.

Practical problems also abound. The terrain, weather and adversary are much different from those experienced in Desert Storm. No one should expect Kosovo to lead to another resounding victory.

NATO could experience many casualties at the hands of a Serbian adversary trained for years in guerrilla tactics in inhospitable mountainous terrain.

The amount of support NATO air forces could provide for ground forces might be limited by the weather, which has already complicated the air war. And, unlike the Iraqis who fled Kuwait, the Serbs are likely to be highly motivated to fight for Kosovo, the cradle of Serbian civilization.

Further complicating matters is the reluctance of most neighboring countries to be launching points for any ground invasion.

Hungary, Bulgaria and Macedonia are likely to refuse to be staging areas. Only Albania--with terrain and infrastructure (ports and roads) less suitable for a staging area--seems eager to host the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Even if NATO could find a suitable staging area, it may now be too late for a lumbering alliance of 19 nations to reach consensus on sending such a large force and actually conduct the formidable logistical task of getting it in place before the Balkan winter.

Indeed, a consensus on a ground invasion of Kosovo is unlikely. If the alliance prepares or conducts a ground invasion, the governments of Italy, Greece, Germany and the Czech Republic could all fall from internal pressure. Consequently, those nations are not enthralled with the idea.

The only alliance member that seems at all enthusiastic about a ground attack is the Labour government in the United Kingdom, a stance also driven by domestic pressure, in this instance from the Conservative Party. It seems the British government is willing to risk the lives of Americans, who would once again do the “heavy lifting” in any ground invasion.

President Clinton, who knows the political pitfalls that high casualties would create for himself and for the chances of Vice President Al Gore in the presidential election of 2000, has wisely been cautious about using ground forces. He ruled them out at first and is now ruling them in again, perhaps in an attempt to scare Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Even if NATO “won,” the introduction of ground forces into Kosovo could be a debacle. If NATO invaded in a “semipermissive” environment (after Milosevic’s army had been sufficiently degraded by the air offensive), its forces might have to pacify both the Serbian army and the Kosovo Liberation Army, which might see an opportunity to win independence from the Serbs.

Even if NATO forces were successful in compelling Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo and the KLA to disarm, the alliance would have to set up a government in the province and make it a protectorate of the West.

As it has been in Bosnia, the alliance would very likely be trapped for years to come. In short, even if NATO “wins,” it loses.