The United States and other backers of Kosovo's drive for independence will seek a firm pledge from NATO allies on Friday to maintain peacekeeping troops at current levels and deal robustly with any violence.
Ethnic Albanian leaders of the breakaway Serbian province are expected to declare independence in the next couple of months after the failure of international mediation, potentially sparking fresh unrest in the Balkans.
NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels will be asked to confirm they will not lay down limits on how the alliance's 16,000-strong KFOR peace force deal with violence as they did when riots in 2004 caught NATO off-guard.
It is our hope that KFOR participants will stay in the mission at current levels, not put any caveats on their forces, and we hope to get good confirmation of that, a senior U.S. official said of a statement due to be agreed at the meeting.
Ministers will also discuss Kosovo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is expected to reaffirm Moscow's opposition to any unilateral independence move. A dispute over Moscow's plan to suspend its participation in a key European arms treaty will also be on the agenda.
The alliance's top commander in Europe, U.S. General John Craddock, said this week Kosovo was the most volatile issue confronting NATO today and warned of growing insecurity.
I think there will be those who want to create mischief and that will be manifested as strife, potentially violence, he told the U.S. National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday.
Washington and the vast majority of European Union states are likely to recognise a declaration of independence by Kosovo, expected around late January, and a senior NATO envoy said no KFOR country had indicated a wish to pull troops out.
Diplomats believe an explicit pledge by alliance nations that they will keep KFOR at full strength and not impose caveats -- such as banning their troops from riot control -- would have a crucial deterrent effect in the tense weeks ahead.
The idea is that it will have a calming effect, said one diplomat, adding he expected confirmation that up to four more battalions -- typically containing up to 800 troops each -- would be ready to deploy if needed.
Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign to halt ethnic cleansing by Serb forces of the 90 percent ethnic Albanian province, which Belgrade insists must remain under its sovereignty.
The communique is also set to state NATO's view that U.N. Security Council resolution 1244, adopted after that war, gives it a mandate to remain in Kosovo even after independence. Diplomats said key allies such as Germany had dropped misgivings over whether the resolution could be applied after independence.
International mediators will report to the United Nations on December 10 that efforts to reach a compromise between Pristina and Belgrade failed. Russia wants further mediation, but the West says the time to settle Kosovo's status has come.
The Brussels meeting will be a first opportunity for NATO ministers to meet Lavrov since President Vladimir Putin signed a moratorium on Russian participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty governing post-Cold War arms deployments.
The move -- which could allow Russia to station more forces close to Europe -- follows a longstanding row over Western nations' refusal to ratify an updated version of the treaty until Moscow withdraws its troops from Georgia and Moldova.
Washington says it is still waiting for a Russian response to proposals aimed at ending the dispute.