MOSCOW - Russia’s former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, famed for turning around his US-bound plane over the Atlantic upon learning of NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, has died aged 85, the Kremlin said on Friday.

“Vladimir Putin expressed deep condolences to the family and relatives of Yevgeny Primakov over his death,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

“He was a statesman, scientist, politician, he has left behind a great legacy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

A veteran of Soviet and Russian politics, Primakov served as premier under president Boris Yeltsin in 1998-1999.

He was installed in the top government job amid political and economic turmoil after Russia defaulted on August 17, 1998.

Primakov also served as foreign minister between 1996 and 1998 and headed the country’s external intelligence agency SVR between 1991 and 1996.

Considered one of the country’s foremost experts on the Middle East, he was also a member of the Kremlin’s security council until 1999.

During the 1991 coup he refused to support Communist hardliners and sided with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Known for aggressively standing up for Russia’s interests, Primakov is most vividly remembered for ordering his US-bound plane to turn around over the Atlantic after he learned from Al Gore, his US counterpart at the time, that NATO had begun a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Primakov called the bombing an “enormous historic mistake” and the famous mid-flight turnaround is considered by many to be a watershed moment in Russia’s foreign policy.

At the time, Primakov was accused of single-handedly putting Russia on the path of confrontation with the West.

“Primakov has turned around Russia,” broadsheet daily Kommersant wrote at the time.

Some saw Primakov as a possible successor to Yeltsin.

But he was sacked in May 1999 - two months after the famous plane episode — as Yeltsin began to fear Primakov’s alliance with Yury Luzhkov, Moscow’s powerful mayor at the time, experts said.

Primakov’s death brought tributes pouring in from across the political spectrum.

State news agency RIA Novosti called Primakov a “crisis manager”.

“In the 1990s Primakov managed to save the SVR and the foreign ministry and then to pull Russia out of the economic spin,” it said.

Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky called the former prime minister “a strong and wise man.”

“I was together with him during the famous ‘turnaround over the Atlantic’,” Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man who spent a decade behind bars, wrote on Facebook.

“And although of course it was him who had to make the decision he listened to everyone.”

Senior ruling United Russia party lawmaker Vladimir Vasilyev said it was Primakov who promoted the idea of a “bipolar world” and Russia’s closer ties with major developing economies China and India.

“This is a colossal loss,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook.

“But his legacy is with us. Much of what he conceived and brought to life forms the basis of the country’s foreign policy.”

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin called him an “outstanding politician”. “He was creating Russia’s history,” he said on Twitter.

US ambassador to Russia John Tefft said he was “greatly saddened” to learn of Primakov’s passing “Yevgeny Maksimovich leaves an impressive legacy of government service,” Tefft said in a statement, referring to the fomer diplomat by his full name.

“He is without doubt one of the great statesmen and diplomats of both Soviet and modern Russian history.”

In recent years Primakov retreated from active politics due to his old age and ill health but he still spoke publicly on international matters.

During one of his last appearances in January, Primakov said Russia needed economic reform and warned the authorities against pulling the country away from the West despite sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.