State Department officials said yesterday the Ludmilla Vlasova affair has demonstrated U.S. determination to protect anyone from being taken out of this country against their will and that the outcome has put the Soviet Union on notice it cannot circumvent U.S. laws.
That, the officials contended, was the principle at issue in the four-day diplomatic duel that saw a Soviet jet-liner with the ballerina on board detained in New York until U.S. officials could interview her outside the plane.
The point, the officials said, was not that Vlasova finally was allowed to return to the Soviet Union, but that responsible U.S. authorities were given the opportunity to assure themselves that she was leaving of her own free will.
In a brief statement, acting Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher called the outcome "a victory for the principle of non-forced repatriation," and other department officials said the matter could have been resolved "in a matter of minutes" if the Soviets had been willing to recognize the U.S. right to talk with Vlasova and ascertain her wishes.
In the end, the officials noted, the matter was resolved only after the Soviets agreed to a suggestion that the United States made shortly after the incident began last Friday night -- that Vlasova be interviewed in a mobile lounge drawn up alongside the Aeroflot jet at New York's Kennedy International Airport.
A senior State Department official who declined to be identified last night gave this accoung of U.S. actions in the incident:
After Vlasova's husband, Alexander Godunov, a star dancer with the touring Bolshoi Ballet, defected last week, he told U.S. officials he thought his wife, also a Boshoi soloist, wanted to remain with him in the United States.
The State Department on three occasions spread over last Thursday and Friday notified the Soviet embassy here that, in accordance with U.S. law, they would have to speak with Vlasova and ascertain her intentions before she could leave the country. According to the senior official, the Soviet embassy on each occasion acknowledged the U.S. right to interview her.
The State Department's action was taken after Christopher, who is the acting head while Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance is on vacation, conferred with Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti.
Some State Department officials said they believe the Justice Department then instructed the Immigration and Naturalization Service to put "hold" on Vlasova, temporarily barring her exit from the country. However, it could not be determined last night whether Justice actually issued such an order.
In any case, the senior official said, the State Department was given no indication that Vlasova would leave the Bolshoi company before the end of its ongoing U.S. tour or that attempts would be made to get her back to the Soviet Union before she could be interviewed by U.S. officials.
On Friday afternoon two State Department officials, Jeffrey Smith of the legal office and Edward Hurwitz of the Soviet affairs office, left Washington for New York where the Bolshoi was then appearing. They were under instructions to talk with Vlasova and ask whether she wanted to remain with her husband in this country.
About 4 p.m. Friday, however, U.S. officials at Kennedy Airport telephoned the State Department to say that Vlasova had come to the airport in the presence of several Soviet officials and had boarded the Aeroflot flight scheduled to leave New York for Moscow at 5 p.m.
On the basis of that information, Christopher, after another conference with the Justice Department, ordered that the plane should be prevented from leaving. This decision was taken under the authority of a federal law barring aliens from leaving U.S. territory without permission.
Christopher's decision was based on the fact that the surface evidence indicated Vlasova might not be leaving voluntarily. This evidence included the facts that she was the wife of a defector, that she had not been interviewed by U.S. offficials even though the Soviets were aware of the U.S. intention to conduct such an interview, and that she had been taken to the airport hastily in the company of a large number of young Soviet officials and put on the plane in a separate compartment surrounded by a number of young men.
By 6 p.m. Friday, Christopher had asked Donald F. McHenry, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to go to Kennedy Airport and take charge of the situation there. At the same time, the State Department was contacting the Soviet embassy with a reminder of U.S. determination to interview Vlasova before she would be allowed to depart.
Then began the long sequence of diplomatic wrangling that saw the Soviets insisting Vlasova did not want to leave the plane and could be interviewed only on board the jetliner. The United States countered that the interview would have to be conducted in a "non-coercive environment" under U.S. rather than Soviet control in order to insure that Vlasova was not speaking or acting under duress.
After approximately 10 hours of this standoff, Christopher and McHenry ordered that American passengers on the plane be taken off and transferred to hotels. At the same time the U.S. officials urged Soviet officials to allow the 67 Soviet citizen passengers on board to leave the plane until the matter was resolved. But the Soviets declined and the passengers remained aboard throughout the long stalemate.
The negotiations continued through Saturday and Sunday without either side giving any ground. On the U.S. side the effort remained under the overall direction of Christopher, acting under general policy instructions relayed from Camp David where President Carter was spending the weekend.
On Sunday, Christopher met at the State Department with Vladillen M. Vasev, charge d'affaires of the Soviet embassy in the absence of Ambassador Anatoily Dobrynin, but the session produced no break in the impasse.
Then at 7:35 a.m. yesterday, the Soviet embassy telephoned the State Department to say the Soviets tentatively were willing to accept a U.S. suggestion, originally made Friday night, that the interview take place in a mobile lounge at the airport. U.S. officials regarded that as meeting the conditions they had set forth for a "non-coercive environment."
By 10 a.m. yesterday Vasev was at the State Department meeting with Christopher, and the two worked out a general agreement on using a mobile lounge. Christopher then telephoned McHenry in New York and asked him to work out details with his Soviet opposite numbers about the circumstances and personnel to be present at the interview. The New York negotiations took until 3 p.m., after which the interview took place.
In giving this account, the senior officials and other State Department sources stressed that at no point before the interview did they have a clear impression of whether Vlasova wanted to remain in this country or return home. The only U.S. concern, they emphasized, was to overcome the cloudy circumstances created by her sudden arrival aboard the airplane by getting the best possible impression of her wishes and state of mind.
The senior official repeated public statements made in New York by McHenry that he and other U.S. officials, including a doctor who was present at the interview, had found her to be lively, relaxed and clearly in full possession of her faculites.
The senior official, asked about a Soviet request last week to speak with Godunov, said the United States would try to persuade him to submit to an interview. But, the official stressed, the United States made no deals about Godunov in arranging the interview with his wife, and he added that if Godunov does agree to talk to the Soviets, a U.S. official will be present.
The official said he could not answer questions about whether Vlasova might be returning because of concern over relatives in the Soviet Union. He said the United States could only make the best judgment about her desire allowed by circumstances and added that he thought U.S. actions had been "prompt and vigorous."
Asked whether Soviet officials had tried to spirit Vlasova out of the country, the official said he couldn't "speak to their motivations."
He noted that the United States informed the Soviets in advance of their intention to interview her, and that the Soviets had acknowledged the U.S. right to do this and had given no advance warning that they intended to take her out of the country.
Should similar incidents occur in the future, the official said, the United States "will continue to advise the Soviets of their intention to interview the person involved before allowing him or her to depart."