Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 58

s decision to launch air strikes against the Serb military caused some immediate collateral political damage yesterday–and it occurred far from the troubled Balkans region. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, en route to Washington for long-anticipated talks with top U.S. and IMF officials, ordered his aircraft back to Moscow upon learning of the latest developments in the Balkans. The decision to abort the talks reportedly followed two telephone conversations between Primakov and U.S. Vice President Al Gore. During those talks Gore told Primakov that diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the Kosovo crisis had failed. He also apparently refused to give guarantees that NATO would not launch air strikes against Serbia while Primakov was in Washington.

Although only two hours outside of Washington, Primakov decided to return to Moscow. There was no indication from either side when the talks might be rescheduled (AP, Reuters, March 23). Although the timing of Primakov’s decision to abort the talks lent it some added drama, the decision was not entirely unexpected. Moscow has vigorously opposed threatened NATO strikes on Serbia, and Primakov and other Russian officials had warned in recent days that the Russian prime minister would cut short his stay in Washington in the event that NATO initiated military action against Belgrade. Russian sources also suggested that they had made this point quite clear to American authorities prior to Primakov’s departure from Moscow. During a stopover in Ireland which had been scheduled for Primakov en route to Washington, moreover, the Russian prime minister had reiterated Moscow’s “categorical” opposition to air strikes on Serbia. He also charged that such attacks would “change the entire nature of the global order… and [would] destabilize the entire region” (Itar-Tass, March 23). Upon his return to Moscow, Primakov repeated these charges (AP, March 24).

A Primakov spokesman said yesterday that the Russian prime minister had made his decision to abort the U.S. visit after consultations with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov was also scheduled to meet with Yeltsin immediately upon his return to the Russian capital, the spokesman said. Kremlin officials were quoted as saying that Primakov could not–presumably for political reasons–afford to be in Washington at a time when strikes were being launched against Serbia (Reuters, March 23).

As NATO moved yesterday toward the decision to launch strikes on Serbia, reactions in Russia were predictably negative. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Russian television viewers that strikes on Serbia would result in a broader conflagration throughout the Balkans. The Russian minister also said that Moscow deserved credit for having sown discord among NATO member states over the desirability of using force against Belgrade.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, meanwhile, warned that the Russian military is prepared to respond appropriately if air strikes are carried out against Serbia. But he did not specify what actions Moscow is contemplating (Russian TV, March 23). The Russian government would be unlikely to use the country’s increasingly decrepit armed forces to try to influence the outcome of hostilities in the Balkans. But numerous Russian officials and commentators have called for Moscow to arm and train Serbian forces. In the event of military hostilities between Belgrade and NATO, it is not inconceivable that Russian military hardware and–possibly–advisors or mercenaries could find their way to Yugoslavia. Such developments could occur with or without the official consent of the Russian government.