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March 24, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As U.S-led NATO forces prepared airstrikes against Serb targets Wednesday, President Clinton was briefed by his national security advisers and telephoned Boris Yeltsin in an attempt to bolster U.S.-Russian relations despite sharp differences.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also was consulting with U.S. allies including Russia, her spokesman said.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Clinton's message for Yeltsin was that "we should not allow a dispute on a single issue to derail the important work we're doing on a wide variety of issues."
White House officials said the 35-minute call was "very direct," with Yeltsin making clear he opposed NATO action and that Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, did not believe diplomatic avenues had been exhausted.
Yeltsin told Clinton that military strikes would be unpopular in Russia, the officials said.
In turn, they said, Clinton spoke "passionately" about the need to end the violence in Kosovo, saying that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had "consistently rebuffed" peace negotiators, and reminded Yeltsin that military strikes had brought Milosevic to peace talks for Bosnia.
Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov registered his opposition by canceling a White House visit even as he flew to Washington on Tuesday.
Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen had breakfast at the White House on Wednesday with National Security Adviser Samuel Berger to discuss Kosovo, an administration official said.
Later in the morning, Clinton cast the confrontation as a stand against "destructive racial, ethnic, religious and cultural" aggression. He offered thinly veiled criticism of Milosevic at a ceremony dedicating the official portrait of Ron Brown, the Commerce secretary and close Clinton friend killed in a plane crash in Croatia 1996.
"There are basically two kinds of people that are dominating the public discourse around the world today. There are people that are determined to divide and drive wedges between people because they are of different ethnic and racial and religious groups," the president said.
"And then there are people like Ron Brown, who believe that everybody ought to be lifted up and brought together and don't understand why anyone would waste lives and take other peoples' lives to gain a false sense of power in a smaller and smaller life based on oppression," Clinton said.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said Albright was discussing the crisis with "foreign ministers and key figures from all over the world, not just in NATO." Other than Russia, he did not specify which countries she had contacted.
He also condemned the Yugoslav government for shutting down the international media's ability to transmit at will from the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade.
The move means that international networks, including CNN, must now go through state-owned and controlled facilities in order to broadcast out of the country.
The long-threatened NATO attacks became more likely when Milosevic rebuffed a last-ditch peace offer in Kosovo.
There were indications the airstrikes could commence at nightfall on Wednesday, beginning with a volley of cruise missiles. But it also is likely, sources tell CNN, that the B-2 stealth bomber would make its combat debut.
The B-2 has the ability to drop 16 bombs, each weighing 2,000 pounds. The satellite-guided bombs would not be hampered by bad weather.
The administration and its allies argued that failure to act now against Yugoslavia and Milosevic could worsen a severe humanitarian crisis, accelerate Serbian acts of genocide against ethic Albanians, hold NATO up to ridicule and even spread the war to other countries such as Greece and Turkey.
A deeply divided Senate late Tuesday closed ranks behind the president, voting 58 to 41 to support airstrikes despite stark differences over aspects of his policy.
Correspondents Wolf Blitzer, John King and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.
U.S., allied planes, ships ready for attacks on Serbs
TIME Daily: A Kosovo Primer
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