Moscow, 24 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In mid-flight over the Atlantic, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov last night abruptly postponed a visit to the United States amid indications that NATO air strikes against Serbia over Kosovo could come soon.
Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin as saying that Primakov turned back toward Moscow after informing President Boris Yeltsin that U.S. Vice President Al Gore had said in a telephone conversation that NATO action against Serbia was "unavoidable."
Yakushkin said that "under those circumstances, the president and the prime ministers decided to postpone the visit".
NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has given the go-ahead for air strikes against Yugoslavia, saying efforts to win a negotiated settlement on Kosovo have failed. Speaking late yesterday in Brussels, he said there is now no alternative to military action. He did not indicate when the operations would begin.
The leader of the moderate parliamentary faction "Our Home Is Russia," Vladimir Ryzhkov, told Interfax news agency that Primakov "took an absolutely correct decision" in calling off the U.S. visit. Ryzhkov said Primakov's presence in the U.S. in case of NATO strikes would have been "extremely embarrassing."
Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also praised the decision, and added that Russia must provide help, including sending planes with armed volunteers, in case Moscow's traditional Slav ally Serbia calls for Russia's support.
Liberal State Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov said Primakov should not have left Moscow at all. According to Yushenkov, Primakov "knew all too well that [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic would not give up his positions...so either the U.S. visit had to be postponed before, or it should have been carried out anyway."
Another Duma deputy, Aleksandr Shokhin, told Interfax news agency that Primakov's return "could also be linked to something serious going on in Moscow." Yesterday, prosecutors searched offices of the Kremlin administration and seized documents as part of a potentially explosive inquiry into alleged corruption in Yeltsin's entourage.
Primakov had been scheduled to be in the United States until Saturday, for key top-level talks on the resumption of International Monetary Fund financial aid to Russia.
The IMF said it regrets the cancellation of Primakov's trip to Washington. An IMF spokesman said discussions with Russia are expected to continue. Primakov, who arrived back in Moscow early today, is expected to meet Yeltsin immediately, to discuss the Kosovo situation and Russia's reaction.
Russia has strenuously opposed NATO air strikes over Kosovo, saying there is still room for a diplomatic solution in the war-torn southern Serbian province. However, despite Russia's opposition to NATO strikes, Moscow has no effective means to prevent them and is unlikely to react militarily.
But Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Russia would step up its combat readiness in case of NATO attacks. Sergeyev also said that "NATO strikes against Yugoslavia may turn out to be another Vietnam, now inside Europe."
The deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Sergei Prikhodko, said Yeltsin sent a message to U.S. President Bill Clinton, reiterating Moscow remains "categorically opposed" to NATO using force against Yugoslavia. Yeltsin was replying to a message sent earlier by U.S. President Bill Clinton, "about the urgency of the situation."
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said strikes would be a "profound mistake." He added, "if a fire burns in Kosovo, and it follows into Macedonia and Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina then another large war in the Balkans would be sparked." He said that Russia "cannot allow that."
The developments came after U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said he had failed during talks in Belgrade to persuade Milosevic to cease hostilities in Kosovo and accept a peace plan. Milosevic rejected a provision that called for NATO-led peacekeepers to be stationed in Kosovo.
Meanwhile in Belgrade, the Yugoslav government declared a state of emergency, citing an imminent threat of war and what it called "aggression against Yugoslavia by NATO."
Ivanov warned that NATO military moves may prompt Moscow to seek an end to the U.N. embargo against Belgrade.
Ivanov told NTV commercial television that Moscow would consider the airstrikes "a NATO aggression and states under aggression must have means to defend themselves." He added that Russia would raise the question [of the end of the UN embargo] in the UN Security Council.
Ivanov's warning came on the same day Moscow denied that a Russian cargo plane seized in Azerbaijan carrying MiG jet fighters had been bound for Yugoslavia in breach of the international arms embargo.
"We have not broken the sanctions, yet," Primakov had said during a stopover in Ireland before canceling his U.S. visit.