BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Whispers about a face-saving Serbian loss to the world's most powerful military alliance began here long before NATO bombs started to fall on Yugoslavia.

Reinforced earlier this week in interviews with well-placed officials in the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, with opposition leaders and with Serbs downing beers in Belgrade bars, the whispers all follow a similar line of Balkan logic. It goes like this:Surrendering control of Kosovo, a province that has genuine historical and religious importance to 10 million Serbians, through peaceful negotiation would be humiliating. It would break Milosevic's hold on the hearts and minds of nationalists, leaving him open to challenge and possible assassination at the hands of well-armed warlords who are part of the ruling elite in Belgrade.

But a hard military loss of Kosovo, after a brave and hopeless struggle against an overwhelming Western foe, could be just the ticket that Milosevic needs to survive with his Serbian manhood and his rule intact. It could rid him of a region where more than nine out of 10 people are ethnic Albanians, an impoverished place that political analysts in Yugoslavia agree is all but ungovernable.

At the same time, such a military defeat would sanctify Milosevic in the lost-cause tradition of Serbia's famously martyred Prince Lazar. Just before dying in Kosovo in 1389 during a legendary failed charge against Ottoman invaders, the prince said, "It is better to die in battle than to live in shame."

In this scenario, even as he savored the sweet fruit of a glorious Serbian defeat, Milosevic would not have to share Prince Lazar's unpleasant end. For unlike the prince, Milosevic wages hopeless war from the safety of his bunkered residence in Belgrade.

None of this, of course, has surfaced in official discourse in Milosevic's Yugoslavia. With NATO bombs falling nightly, such arguments, if breathed in public, would be treasonous. Officials and state-controlled news organizations hold to the line voiced this week by Vuk Draskovic, a deputy prime minister, who thundered during a news conference: "Losing Kosovo would be the death penalty for the Serbian nation. Kosovo is the root of our national history."

Amid all this noise, however, there was no shortage of thinking Serbs willing to speak softly of Realpolitik.

"Any Serbian leader who simply wrote off Kosovo would have a terrible political problem," said Dejan Anastasijevic, who writes about military affairs for Vreme, an independent Belgrade weekly. "But it is sort of honorable to lose after a battle with the most powerful military alliance in the world. I think Milosevic probably is aware that in the long run, he cannot keep his control over Kosovo, and he has opted for losing it by force."

Similar sentiments, although not for attribution, were voiced by an official a few hours before the first bombs fell on Kosovo on Wednesday night.

"If it is lost, we keep the right to reconquer it, even 100 years from now," the official said. "If we give it away, it is lost forever."