MOSCOW -- Flying into Yugoslavia today in hopes of finding a means to halt the NATO airstrikes, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov is trying to resuscitate Russian influence in the Balkans and just maybe pull off a diplomatic coup.
Expectations here are low, but after Moscow's failure last week to prevent the NATO attack, Primakov has little to lose by trying.
"Everyone understands his mission is almost impossible," Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Polity Foundation, said yesterday.
If a solution eludes Primakov today, Nikonov said, "it cannot be regarded as a failure of Russian diplomacy."
The government announced yesterday that Primakov will fly to Belgrade accompanied by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and top intelligence officials.
They plan to meet with Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and then fly to Bonn to see German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Milosevic is not popular among Russian officials, who feel he has led them into a confrontation they didn't want, but they are nevertheless steadfast allies of the Serbs.
Russia has bitterly -- and so far fruitlessly -- denounced the NATO strikes, and politicians here have whipped up emotional pan-Slavic feelings among a population that was turning more and more toward anti-Americanism even before the bombing started.
This stance could give Primakov's mission some influence and credibility in Belgrade.
"But Milosevic is not the kind of person who expects to be told what to do," and he's certain to try to outwit Primakov, said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute here.
Primakov, who once served as head of Russia's intelligence service, will have a chance to gauge Milosevic's intentions after five days of NATO bombing and Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. What he learns could be put to use "to coordinate such steps as would make it possible to direct events toward a peaceful settlement," in the words of Ivanov, the foreign minister.
Primakov is unlikely, analysts here agreed, to find Milosevic in despair over the bombing or particularly eager to stop it until his forces have expelled or killed most of the Kosovar Albanians.
"Let's agree that so far the NATO air raids have not impressed Mr. Milosevic very much," said Kremenyuk. On the contrary, they have freed the Yugoslav leader to do pretty much as he wants.
"The Serbian troops have started kicking out the Albanians on the pretext of the bombing," Kremenyuk said, and he finds it entirely plausible that Belgrade may next decide to engage NATO ground troops in Macedonia or, more probably, Bosnia. "NATO will not risk a ground war there, and Milosevic will be the savior of his motherland," he said.
Primakov's primary message to NATO may be a stark one, Kremenyuk said: "You have unleashed a sequence of events which may not follow your plans. If you are not prepared for that, you had better stop."
Others here are somewhat less pessimistic.
Yuri Knyazev, of the Institute of International Political and Economic Studies, said he believes Primakov may be able to foster a deal involving peacekeeping troops from non-NATO nations, perhaps coordinated by the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Clearly, he has to get Milosevic to agree to autonomy for Kosovo, which may not be impossible. More problematically, Primakov would have to find a way to assure the NATO countries, before they could agree to stop the bombing, that the expulsion and murder of Albanian Kosovars will come to a halt.
That could be difficult. Time, in Nikonov's view, is on Belgrade's side. "Whatever goal Washington has, it cannot be achieved," he said.
The human catastrophe, he argued, has worsened since the bombing began. Milosevic is stronger, not weaker. It would be futile to think Serbia could be conquered.
"For these reasons," he said, "NATO is doomed to lose."
In a week, Serbs will have forced the Albanians out of Kosovo. Then, he said, they can take to the mountains and wait Washington out. In a few weeks, he predicted, the NATO countries will be looking for ways to stop their own bombing campaign.
Primakov was ordered to Belgrade by President Boris N. Yeltsin, and it is not entirely clear what the prime minister's intentions may be. In their perpetual infighting, Russian politicians have been trying their utmost to capitalize personally on the NATO attacks, with the Communists and nationalists leading the way.
Primakov has called for "a mobilization" of the Russian economy, and he may see the bombardment of Yugoslavia as a useful means of stirring up a crisis mentality.
His is not the only Slavic mission to Belgrade. A trio of Russian reformers -- Boris Nemtsov, Boris Fyodorov and Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister -- were in Belgrade yesterday, where they found themselves attacked in the press as "scum" who had sold out Russia to the West.
Few Yugoslav officials met with them, but Gaidar was quoted last night by the Itar Tass news agency as saying that they had sent some proposals to Moscow.
A delegation from Ukraine, which has considerably warmer relations with the West than Moscow does, visited late last week; and President Leonid Kuchma is reported to be planning to meet with Milosevic tomorrow.
Chances are, he'll pick up where Primakov left off. No one here is betting on peace just yet.
Pub Date: 3/30/99