Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov made a sharp U-turn on Mar. 23 when he heard NATO forces would soon strike Kosovo. On his way to Washington for a meeting with Vice- President Al Gore, Primakov ordered the pilots of his Russian jet to head immediately back to Moscow. Now, as the Kosovo conflict intensifies, relations between the U.S. and Russia could be headed for a sharp reversal as well.
Indeed, the crisis is dividing the U.S. and Russia like no other issue since the height of the cold war. And how the Kosovo war is resolved could have a huge impact both on domestic Russian politics and on the tenor of U.S.-Russian relations for years to come. The NATO strikes are fanning anti-American sentiment in Russia, giving a boost to President Boris N. Yeltsin's hard-line opponents, and undermining support for arms control. That's why, as a friend of Serbia, Primakov is scrambling to act as mediator in the conflict. If he can negotiate a cease-fire, he could be acclaimed for bringing peace and restoring Russia's prestige on the international stage. And he would become the leading contender to succeed Yeltsin as President in elections set for June 2000.
Every day the conflict continues, the pressure grows on Primakov and Yeltsin to intervene militarily. Indeed, on Apr. 7, the State Duma voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding resolution urging Yeltsin to send both arms and a military mission to Yugoslavia. Although Yeltsin is unlikely to heed that call, the move ups the ante sharply. If a ground war breaks out, Primakov may not be able to resist pressure to back the Serbs with arms or troops. "This is the most dangerous crisis between Russia and the U.S. since the Cuban missile crisis," worries Alexei G. Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma's Defense Committee and member of the moderate Yabloko Party.
Any Russian military involvement in the conflict--except as peacekeeper--could be just the start of a sharp turn away from the West. Russian analysts say it would only be a matter of time before the country began rebuilding its nuclear arsenal and forging tighter strategic ties with China, Iran, and Iraq. Already, the conflict has put on hold U.S.-Russian efforts to slash nuclear arsenals. After years of delay, Primakov had persuaded the Duma to vote on and approve the START II treaty in late March. The vote was cancelled after the strikes, and the treaty is all but dead.
A further escalation of the Kosovo conflict will also shake up Russian domestic politics. According to recent Russian polls, 98% of the population opposes the NATO strikes. The conflict is almost sure to boost support for Communist and nationalist politicians in parliamentary elections in December.
NEXT PRESIDENT? As a shrewd diplomat and ex-spymaster, Primakov seems to be maneuvering through this minefield to come up with the best outcome for Russia--and perhaps his own political career. At home, he is loudly condemning the NATO air strikes, though resisting military intervention. Apart from Kosovo, he is winning favor by going after Russia's once-powerful banking tycoons, issuing arrest warrants for businessmen Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Smolensky for alleged financial crimes.
Most important, in the international arena, Primakov is presenting himself as the only person who can broker a deal between NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevich. It's true that the Serbs trust Primakov because Russia consistently has opposed the use of force in Yugoslavia. And the Clinton Administration is also used to dealing with the ex-Foreign Minister. On Apr. 6, Vice-President Gore asked Primakov to urge Milosevich to accept NATO's terms to end the conflict. Although Primakov hasn't yet revealed his own proposals, Russian analysts say he could push for a deal that would include a peacekeeping force involving Russian troops and soldiers from NATO countries uninvolved in the bombing, such as Spain.
As the bombs continue to fall on Kosovo, in Russia all eyes are on Primakov. When he became Prime Minister last September, the 68-year-old was seen as a transitional figure: the ailing Yeltsin's right hand man until next year's Presidential elections. Now, he is playing a far greater role.