On the 24th of March, 1999, the then Prime Minister of Russia, Yevgeny Primakov, was approximately 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean in the Russian government's official Ilyushin Il-96 aircraft, on his way to meet Vice-President Al Gore in Washington D.C. Whilst in the air Primakov received a phone call from Gore, informing him that the NATO air bombardment of Yugoslavia would commence in a few hours. Primakov attempted to convince Gore to suspend the attacks, and offered Russian mediation in the Kosovan dispute. On being rebuffed, Primakov ordered the plane to return to Russia. His scheduled meeting with Gore, ostensibly to discuss the resumption of IMF monetary aid to Russia, never took place.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin remarked that "under those circumstances, the president and the prime ministers decided to postpone the visit" while Liberal State Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov criticised Primakov, commenting that Primakov "knew all too well that 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."

There was speculation that Primakov's decision was precipitated not by the widely anticipated bombing of Yugoslavia, but by a search of Kremlin offices on behalf of state prosecutors, allegedly linked to widespread corruption within Yeltsin's government and entourage.

The mid-air turnabout is proverbially known as "Primakov's Loop".

The consequences of this incident are wide ranging. The move positioned Russia in opposition to the US and NATO on matters relating to the Balkans, and Kosovo in particular, defining a policy of unilateralism on their part. Earlier in that day, whilst in Ireland, Primakov was forced to deny breaking the Yugoslav arms embargo after a shipment of MiG jet fighters from Russia to Belgrade was uncovered in Azerbaijan. U.S. General Wesley Clark would later reveal that, during the conflict, he had asked British General Mike Jackson to engage with Russian forces to secure Pristina Airport, an order that Jackson refused, claiming that he "did not want to start World War Three." The anecdote highlights how tense relations between the two nations had became.

The move may also be characterised as an attempt by Primakov to take charge of state matters in light of Yeltsin's declining health, using the reversal to publicise his personal rejection of US foreign policy and therefore boost his credentials for a possible future role as President. It is likely Yeltsin interpreted the event in this manner as some months later he would fire Primakov, opening the way for his protege Vladimir Putin to eventually become President of Russia.

The IMF was forced to convene a hasty meeting with Primakov in Moscow instead of Washington in the days following the event, but only a 'broad framework' could be agreed upon, with the NY Times speculating that only enough money to stop Russia from defaulting on foreign loans would be handed over. In light of Russian opposition to NATO attacks, and suspicions that Yeltsin's entourage diverted funds to personal bank accounts, the U.S. was keen to reduce further loans to Russia. Indeed U.S. state officials went even further by insisting that by the end of the year they wanted to "make sure that Russia pays more to the I.M.F. in 1999 than the I.M.F. pays Russia."

A Footnote

Assuming Primakov's Loop to be a divergent event in history, and writing a counterfactual or alternate history from that point onwards, it is possible now that the world would be rather different had Primakov taken an alternate course of action. How much is impossible to tell, I mean, how important are these tête-à-têtes anyway? Where one state official flies overseas to visit another, hors d'œuvre are served in utilitarian function rooms, photos of the smiling bureaucrats shaking hands are snapped by eager editorial photographers in front of cynical journalists with empty notepads, where eventually, upon sitting down to talk to one another, the two politicians discover, much to their chagrin (or perhaps relief, not wanting to broach delicate topics of conversation), that they cannot communicate with one another in a mutually intelligable language.

But still, had Primakov been able to enlist Gore's support for IMF loan resumption it would have shored up Yeltsin's faltering government, while also strengthening Primakov's hand internally, blocking Putin's path to power. A less strident opposition to NATO involvement in the Balkans could've also seen a more cohesive, multilateral approach to the future of the region, but also weakened Primakov's position amongst hardline factions within Russia. Maybe Russia and America could've learned to work together in Eastern Europe - maybe the power blackouts in Tblisi would be less regular, maybe Yushchenko would not have spots on his face. Who knows?

Ultimately it is difficult to say whether history is the progression of individual events and their consequences, directed with effortless grace by a powerful elite in a dark room somewhere, or equally in a well-lit room, or an ineluctable procession of events and states determined by a grand structure of economic or social processes too complex and vast for single agents to control or direct, too obscure to be encapsulated in a single event.

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