MOSCOW -- In midflight over the Atlantic Ocean yesterday, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov decided that the imminent NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia made his visit to Washington impossible, and he ordered his plane to turn around and head back to a subdued and diminished Moscow.
Primakov made his decision with his plane over the Atlantic and approaching Newfoundland. He had just telephoned Vice President Al Gore, demanding assurances that NATO would not bomb Serbia while he was in Washington for scheduled meetings with Gore and the International Monetary Fund.
In Washington, administration officials insisted they did not encourage Primakov's decision, but they readily conceded they greeted the news with relief.
Russia has resolutely opposed the use of force by Western powers in Yugoslavia and stood up for the Serbs in international councils, but now Moscow's Yugoslav policy seems to have come to nothing -- and at the same time Russia has come no closer to obtaining the loan from the IMF that was the chief objective of Primakov's trip to Washington.
Several politicians here made the same point last night: Primakov could not allow himself to be in a position where he appeared to be selling out the Serbs in exchange for IMF billions.
But his return underlines the end of Russian influence, for now at least, over international action in Yugoslavia.
Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, worried in a television interview Sunday that events might move as, in the end, they did.
"This will very seriously undermine our interests and prestige," he said of the possibility of NATO strikes. "You see, we have invested too much into that problem. Everybody sees this and everybody sees that there is nothing to show for the effort. That would be a most serious defeat of Russia, of our diplomacy."
The United States, he said, has shown that it is less concerned about Russia than about the "rogue" states that appear to present a greater threat. And this is behind what the newspaper Sevodnya yesterday called a "slap in the face" to Russian diplomacy.
Russian opposition to NATO action and support for the Serbs derive from several sources. First, and perhaps most important, is a pronounced unhappiness with the idea that the United States is running the world. Russia opposed U.S. and British strikes against Iraq late last year for much the same reason.
Second, Russia feels a genuine tie to the Orthodox Serbs in their clashes with Muslim neighbors -- although this tie is probably not as profound as public pronouncements in Moscow would suggest.
A deeper, related factor is Moscow's unwillingness to see post-Communist states broken up along ethnic lines. If Kosovo can go, what about Chechnya, Russia's own troubled province? If Serb authority in parts of Yugoslavia is illegitimate, what does that say about Russian authority in parts of the Russian Federation?
"A country should not be punished for trying to fight separatism within its borders," said Lukin. "Even if it is doing this roughly."
Igor Ivanov, Russian foreign minister, said last night that before talks between the Serbs and Kosovars in France broke off this month, Moscow had succeeded in ensuring that the draft accord put before the two sides called for "full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia."
"This is the main thing Russia has managed to achieve," he said.
But the talks failed. Russia counseled further attempts at negotiations. "Unfortunately, our partners within the Contact Group, and first of all Washington, have sometimes no patience to continue political dialogues," he said.
In India, the Russian defense minister, Igor Sergeyev, predicted yesterday that strikes in Yugoslavia will escalate into a war that will spread throughout the Balkans. It will be, he told the Itar-Tass news agency, "another Vietnam."
Russia, he said, will take whatever measures it deems necessary. "All of them will include a rise in the combat readiness of the Russian armed forces," he said.
Pub Date: 3/24/99