Primakov’s imperial line

By J Michael Waller, Perspective (Boston University Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy), January-February 1997.

Russian foreign policy has become more consistent and predictable since Yevgeni Primakov succeeded Andrei Kozyrev as foreign minister in January 1996. Moscow’s diplomacy today shows a tendency toward greater integration between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Trade, the military-industrial complex (VPK), the fuel and energy complex (TEK), and the unreformed security and intelligence services.

Primakov appears to have reinforced the erratic, often seemingly irrational, anti-Western outbursts of President Yel’tsin. Breaking from the mere diplomacy of Kozyrev, he brings a statescraft reminiscent of Primakov’s two great mentors, Andrei Gromyko and Yuri Andropov. The government is not yet singing from the same sheet, as demonstrated by the frequent public differences between the ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs on NATO expansion and China, where Primakov consistently has taken a harder line than the generals. Nevertheless, the trend has been in Primakov’s favor.

Appointed to the plaudits of Communists and ultranationalists, Primakov had set this course from behind the scenes as director of the External Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshnei razvedki, SVR), the foreign branch of the former KGB to which he was appointed in September 1991. He won widespread respect shepherding a demoralized SVR through a precarious period of transition, and benefited particularly after the February 1994 arrest of Aldrich Ames, the KGB and SVR penetration agent within the CIA. Revelation of this recruiting achievement was wildly popular in Russia

By September 1994, it became clear that the SVR had eclipsed the foreign ministry policy when Primakov warned in a major address from Kozyrev’s press center that Moscow’s re-domination of the territory of the former Soviet Union was inevitable. (1) Primakov announced a grand strategy: Russia would get its own house in order by attempting to restore hegemony over Soviet territory; to challenge American strength where limited resources would permit, specifically to undermine expansion of the NATO alliance; and to rebuild relations with radical regimes in the Middle East (mostly terror-supporting states, as listed by the US Congress) as well as with the People’s Republic of China.

The strategy turned Russia from its courtship of Western civilization toward support of the Asiatic despotism with which Primakov has been more comfortable. All the while, making very few concessions, Primakov has courted the West by continuing, at least on the surface, to profess partnership in fighting nuclear proliferation, transnational crime, terrorism, and other crises.

This professed partnership must be evaluated by deeds. Primakov had hardly been at Staraya Ploshad’ for two weeks when he forgave half of Libya’s $16 billion debt to Moscow. (2) He took the action even as the International Monetary Fund, with strong pressure from Washington, readied to approve a three-year cash transfer of $10.2 billion to the Russian Central Bank. He then went to Tajikistan to call for sending more Russian combat troops to prop up the still-Communist regime. (3) Then he systematized the ministry’s wavering stance toward NATO by setting a line that co-opted the Communist and ultranationalist opposition rhetoric of the presidential campaign. During his first meeting with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, as if to defuse potential Western criticism of the new firm course, Primakov reassured journalists at a Helsinki news conference, “Of course reforms will continue. Of course there will be no step backwards. Of course democratization of our society will continue. Of course the policy connected with President Yel’tsin will continue.” (4)

Foreign Policy under Primakov

A survey of Russian foreign policy during Primakov’s first year as foreign minister shows a striking contrast with Russia’s optimistic, reform-minded diplomacy of 1991 and 1992.

Near Abroad

Solidifying control over the former Soviet landmass is Moscow’s greatest challenge. Primakov seeks international legitimacy for attempts to consolidate the “near abroad” under Moscow’s domination, while decrying what he sees as a US-led trend toward a “unipolar world” that is undermining the multipolar “democratic world order.” In a major article for Nezavisimaya gazeta, he calls for renouncing economic sanctions as a geopolitical tool (though this is precisely a mechanism he endorses forcibly to integrate the CIS), and argues that Russia’s own unilateral military actions in the “near abroad,” such as in Tajikistan and the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova or the Abkhazia region of Georgia, should receive international standing equal to UN and NATO peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia. He argues that the CIS should have a status equal to that of NATO or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). (5) In other words, he remains a fervent believer in the “two camps” view of the world that characterized the Cold War.

Arms control

Until Primakov re-established a foreign policy “party line” in the early days of Yel’tsin’s re-election campaign, arms control agreements signed with the United States were not emotional political issues in Moscow. Indeed, the Ministry of Defense lobbied Communists and ultranationalists in the State Duma to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) with the United States. In February 1996, Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin termed START II “extremely advantageous” to Russia and observed parliamentary political leaders “almost unanimously” supported ratification. (6)

Yet within weeks, Primakov began applying Soviet-style linkage to START II, threatening on the eve of the April G-7 nuclear summit to delay the treaty’s consideration in a bid to pressure the US not to build a limited defense system against ballistic missiles. (7) This linkage tactic soon became a government strategy, with the Ministry of Defense following suit and linking START II and other agreements to unrelated issues. Moscow also reneged on a December 1995 pledge to accept an anti-proliferation provision, the 31-country Wassenaar arrangement, to give advance notice prior to transferring high-tech goods and weapons to Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. (8)

NATO expansion

While the Ministry of Defense and the presidential administration have alternated between denouncing and minimizing the threat of an expanded NATO, the foreign ministry, with some tactical adjustments, has been more rigid. Under Kozyrev, the ministry had not fully followed President Yel’tsin’s own anti-NATO outbursts, perhaps in part because the president himself was not consistent.

However, Primakov, the masterful bureaucratic infighter, has battled other officials in the Kremlin leadership who pondered good relations with–and even possible political membership in–NATO. He forbade presidential Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed’ from sitting in on his meetings with Yel’tsin and publicly berated Lebed’s successor, Ivan Rybkin. “The security council secretaries have developed a sort of hobby in speaking on questions of Russia’s participation in NATO,” Primakov told journalists, “but Russian foreign policy is formulated by the Foreign Ministry, and it maintains, as before, a negative attitude toward NATO’s eastward enlargement.”(9)

Primakov’s statecraft clearly shows–with intense and orchestrated denunciations of the dangers and ill intentions of NATO, demands for Western concessions, linkages with existing or pending treaties, and threats against individual prospective NATO members. Again, these actions could be seen prior to his appointment, but now became institutional. The strategy appears to be succeeding. In January 1997, the US, Germany, and NATO itself offered Primakov–if not an outright veto over alliance decisions–a set of concessions that one report called “new flexibility on arms control problems, greater economic assistance and a special consultative status that would give Russia a seat at NATO’s table.”(10)

Middle East

Much of Primakov’s career has been spent as an authority on the Middle East. He has not only retained his strong personal interest as foreign minister, but has retained the old friendships, as well. He has tried, with little success to date, to inject himself into the Arab-Israeli peace process. Publicly, he assures Jerusalem that Russia would not support any country that attacked Israel, but his decades-long track record and his recent actions suggest otherwise. (11)


As SVR chief, Primakov initiated a training program for Iranian intelligence officers. (12) As foreign minister, he has provided crucial diplomatic support to Teheran in response to the desires of the fossil fuel and nuclear energy sectors, the arms industry, and his own geopolitical inclinations. He has led an effort to foil the United States’ efforts to isolate Iran for its support of international terrorism. The day the US accused Teheran of sponsoring recent acts of terrorist violence in Israel in March 1996, Primakov openly praised Iran for its claim to “fight” such warfare. (13) During a December 1996 visit to Teheran, Primakov “condemned the recent tensions in the region created by the United States” and alleged that “the growing US and allied military presence in the Persian Gulf is incompatible with peace and stability.” These are far from calming words. During a meeting with President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Primakov went further, calling Russia and Iran “the two main pillars of regional peace.”(14)


Fully reversing Moscow’s principled isolation of Baghdad for launching the Persian Gulf War and violating subsequent international arms mandates, Primakov has also been working hard to lift UN sanctions on his old friend, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whose country is reeling under an international embargo for its continued failure to account for and destroy its weapons of mass destruction. The reversal began under Kozyrev. On the surface, the policy appears simply to enable Russian oil and gas companies to fulfill lucrative new drilling contracts, and to provide the military industry with a financial boost to sell billions of dollars in back-ordered weapons. More substantively, an ideological, “two camps” dimension has also surfaced in Russia’s unnecessary diplomatic gestures whose value seems merely to assert adolescent, Soviet-like opposition to the United States. Moscow was quick to condemn a US cruise missile attack on Iraqi air defense sites in response to Iraq’s attempt to shoot down American military aircraft enforcing the UN “no-fly zone.” (15)

His old friends in the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) continue to benefit from his decades of support. In 1996, as the PKK used the UN safe haven in northern Iraq to stage guerrilla raids into Turkey, and as a faction of Baghdad-backed Kurds crushed others in the safe haven, Primakov announced that Moscow would veto a British UN Security Council resolution in support of the victimized Kurds belonging to the anti-PKK Barazani and Talabani groups, under ostensible UN protection.


Primakov has stepped up Russia’s diplomatic support for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Since at least 1995, during Kozyrev’s tenure in an apparent response to energy and military-industrial interests, Moscow has become the most powerful defender of the Libyan government’s efforts to escape from United Nations sanctions imposed for Tripoli’s involvement in the 1988 terrorist bombing of a Pan American jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. (16) Primakov has not joined the West in demanding that Libya turn over its accused intelligence agents for trial. Under his direction Russia voted for a Libyan-authored UN resolution to repeal laws directed at enterprises doing business with terrorist regimes. (17) His imprint is seen on Yel’tsin’s behind-the-scenes activity. At the March 1996 anti-terrorism summit in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, the Russian president joined Western leaders in calling for global unity against terrorism. Eleven days later, Yel’tsin had a personal letter hand-delivered to Qaddafi, pledging to help lift the Lockerbie sanctions. (18) The West said nothing. Four months later, Primakov led the Russian delegation to the Paris G-7 summit on terrorism and compared alleged Chechen bombers to terrorist organizations in Western Europe. (19)


Moscow maintains interests in Cuba, such as sales of arms and industrial spare parts and a partially built nuclear reactor at Juragua, but the real strategic interest is the massive, Soviet-built electronic intelligence-gathering facility outside Lourdes. Since 1992, Russia has provided Cuba with subsidized trade concessions and credits, commodities, and payments for use of the Lourdes base, which currently is undergoing a technological upgrade. Nevertheless, Russian diplomacy seldom came to Fidel Castro’s rescue until Primakov’s appointment.

Some Russian observers see Moscow’s policy as inspired to lay the groundwork for using Cuba as a potential counter to NATO expansion. (20) Primakov has seized on this as a prod to irritate Washington. A case in point is the February 1996 Cuban shooting down of two unarmed American Cessna airplanes in international airspace over the Straits of Florida. The planes were operated by American citizens of Cuban origin who dropped anti-Castro leaflets on Cuban territory. When the US sought a United Nations condemnation of the attack, which killed the crew of both aircraft, Russia actively worked with China to dilute the language to ensure that the action would not be “condemned.” (21) A foreign ministry spokesman said Moscow “deeply regrets” the incident, but withheld judgment about Cuban conduct, instead criticizing the US for its “provocative” actions.(22)

Former Yugoslavia

Since the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Moscow has backed the regime in Belgrade and the armed factions it supported. Only after generous US inducements, and then only reluctantly, did Russia join the NATO-led peacekeeping force in 1995. Cooperation between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense in Bosnia has been tangible, though a scandal in which Russian forces were caught spying on the NATO command in Tuzla has shown that old habits thrive. (23)

The foreign ministry’s position has been more visibly adversarial. It has not joined the West in the diplomatic isolation of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. When the US worked to maintain sanctions, Moscow lifted sanctions on Serbia and on Bosnian Serbs imposed during a more cooperative era. (24) Primakov has impugned the legitimacy of the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague, accusing it of bias against Serbs and warning against any attempt to apprehend indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, (25) while offering diplomatic support for Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic against an OSCE attempt to pressure him to respect the results of the November 17, 1996 elections. (26) Yet Milosevic’s domestic opponents see Primakov’s policy not as ethnic and cultural fraternity between Orthodox Slavs, but as ideological. Serbian opposition leader Vuk Draskovic denounced Primakov personally on Russian television, accusing him of supporting “the last Communist dictator in Europe.”(27)

People’s Republic of China

In September 1995, Primakov became Moscow’s first intelligence chief to visit the People’s Republic of China. The nature of his visit was not disclosed. As foreign minister, he considers building “strategic” relations with Beijing, beyond current mutually lucrative military and commercial ties, as a “very important priority.” (28) The Ministry of Defense, however, has expressed strong apprehension about high-tech weapons sales to China and still views its Communist neighbor as a potential adversary.

In June 1996, Primakov’s predecessor Kozyrev described the view that the West is Moscow’s natural enemy as a “sinister Communist lie” that society had to overcome if Russia was to become a normal country. (29) Primakov has a different vision. The next day he delivered a speech published in Trud, pronouncing that Moscow should not be in such a hurry to join, in his words, “the club of civilized nations.”(30)



1 See J. Michael Waller, “Who is Making Foreign Policy?” Perspective, vol. V, no. 3, January-February 1995.
2 The Washington Times, 22 January 1996.
3 Scott Parrish, “Primakov on Tajik Conflict,” OMRI Daily Digest, 30 January 1996, p. 2.
4 Reuters, Helsinki, 11 February 1996.
5 Nezavisimaya gazeta, 22 October 1996, extracted in Monitor: A Daily Briefing on the Post-Soviet States, Jamestown Foundation, no. 199, 24 October 1996 (hereafter cited as Jamestown Monitor).
6 ITAR-TASS, 19 January 1996; Washington Post, 1 February 1996.
7 The Washington Times, 25 March 1996.
8 Reuters from Vienna, 4 April 1996, and Washington Post, 5 April 1996.
9 Interfax, 5 November 1996; ITAR-TASS, 5 November 1996; Jamestown Monitor, no. 208, 6 November 1996.
10 William Drozidak, “Allies Map Steps to Link Russia to Wider NATO,” Washington Post, 16 January 1997, p. A23.
11 Reuters, 31 October 1996.
12 The Washington Times, 11 September 1995.
13 Reuters, 7 March 1996.
14 Jamestown Monitor, no. 240, 24 December 1996, citing ITAR-TASS, 2 and 23 December; Xinhua, 22 and 23 December; and the Associated Press, 23 December 1996.
15 The Daily Telegraph, 5 September 1996.
16 Reuters from Moscow, 24 March 1996; and Interfax from Moscow, 26 March 1996.
17 Reuters, 27 November 1996.
18 Reuters from Tripoli, 24 March 1996.
19 “Primakov Interviewed on NATO Expansion, Chechen ‘Terrorism,’” ITAR-TASS World Service in Russian 0845 GMT 1 August 1996 (FBIS-SOV-94-49).
20 Leonid Velekhov, “The Primacy of ‘Ideology’: Russia-Cuba Relations,” Perspective, vol. VI, no. 4, March-April 1996.
21 The Washington Times, 27 February 1996.
22 Scott Parrish, “Russia Criticizes US Over Cuban Plane Incident,” OMRI Daily Digest, no. 41, 27 February 1996, p. 2.
23 Bill Gertz, “Russian Peacekeepers Spying on US: Van in Bosnia Houses Listening Gear,” The Washington Times, 17 December 1996.
24 Scott Parrish, “Russia Unilaterally Suspends Sanctions on Bosnian Serbs,” OMRI Daily Digest, no. 40, 26 February 1996, p. 2.
25 Interfax, 17 July 1996.
26 The New York Times, 4 January 1997; Jamestown Monitor, no. 3, 6 January 1997; Associated Press, 18 December 1996; ITAR-TASS, 16 December 1996.
27 NTV, ITAR-TASS, 16 December 1996, cited in Jamestown Monitor, no. 236, 18 December 1996.
28 Trud, 25 June 1996, summarized in OMRI Daily Digest, 25 June 1996.
29 Reuters, Crans-Montana Switzerland, 23 June 1996.
30 Trud, 24 June 1996, cited in OMRI Daily Digest, 25 June 1996.

Copyright ISCIP 1997