`Plodding' Primakov Proves Shrewd, Tenacious: He's Set Russia's Foreign Policy on a New Course

Article excerpt

Yevgeny Primakov this month celebrated the end of his first year as Russian foreign minister, during which he pulled off a diplomatic revolution and almost nobody seemed to notice.

"He has already proven himself a very effective and forceful foreign minister," said Keith Bush, director of Russian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "He has put Russia's case on issues in the strongest terms. He has often only held a very weak poker hand, but he has always played it very well."

Mr. Primakov, a Cold War veteran who masterminded Middle East policy for Leonid Brezhnev, was pulled over from four years as Russia's top spy master, running the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), to replace Andrei Kozyrev as foreign minister last January.

Mr. Kozyrev was a loud-talking democrat whose bark was worse than his bite. He publicly used rhetoric warning of war with the West if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pushed ahead with its planned eastward expansion.

But privately he dealt warmly and well with his Western opposite numbers and was convinced that Russia's future lay in close relations with the United States and Western Europe.

Mr. Primakov, by contrast, has followed the traditional advice of President Theodore Roosevelt to talk softly and carry a big stick - at least the biggest stick at hand.

He has switched the orientation of Russian foreign policies from West to East and South, and from focusing on countries far away to those nearby.

TIES TO CHINA, IRAQ, IRAN

First, Mr. Primakov has forged far closer relations with China, Iraq and Iran than Russia had enjoyed since the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" (restructuring) policies more than a decade ago. "Primakov is very willing to deal closely with countries that the United States finds objectionable, such as Iraq or Iran," said David Kramer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The warming of relations with China that we have seen is to some extent a response to NATO expansion."

Russia is still far from creating any formal alliance with China against the West. Both nations need Western trade and investment far too much.

The new Beijing-Moscow axis consists of "a loose understanding of agreement on strategic issues reflecting their common interests," Mr. Kramer said.

Russian and Chinese leaders talk about a strategic relationship between them to prevent any other nation - usually unnamed, but the United States seems meant - from deploying hegemony over them and the rest of the world.

Under Mr. Primakov, Russia's relations with China have grown to perhaps the warmest in history.

Relations between the Soviet Union and China appeared close between 1949 and 1958, raising U.S. fears of a communist monolith stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But shrewd observers such as Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times and Ray Cline, CIA station chief in Taiwan in the 1950s, noted that major divisions on ideology and deep mutual suspicions divided the two nations.

By contrast, Russia and China today make no pretense to ideological solidarity and no longer rival each other to lead any international Communist Party movement. But their relations appear warmer and more stable for being based on strategic and economic self-interest.

ACCELERATING THE THAW

Relations between newly democratic Russia and dictatorial China, which practices market economics at home but pays lip service to communism, slowly thawed in the 1990s. But under Mr. Primakov the process accelerated dramatically.

"For the first time in a quarter of a century, Russia and China are now closer to each other than either country is to the United States," said Dimitri Simes, the president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.

Mr. Primakov and his deputies at the Russian Foreign Ministry have been in the forefront of that process, laying the foundations for Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng's successful visit to Moscow this month and for President Boris Yeltsin's scheduled trip to China in April. …