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Russia: Analysis From Washington--'Promiscuous Polarity' In Post-Cold War World

  • Paul Goble



Washington 23 December 1998 -- Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's efforts to exploit Indian and Chinese unhappiness with the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq reflect recent changes in nature of the international system rather than a fundamental shift in Moscow's foreign policy.

That is, they reflect the declining importance of longterm alliances based on long term interests and the increasing significance of temporary accords based on short-term reactions to specific events, a pattern one Indian foreign policy expert has called "promiscuous polarity."

In commenting on Primakov's latest effort, Uday Bhaskar, the deputy director of the Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, noted that in the wake of the end of the Cold War, "every major country is groping" for a definition of the nature of the new international system.

"It is neither a unipolar world, nor a multi-polar world," Bhaskar argued. Rather it is "more like promiscuous polarity," a world in which every country has "to engage everyone" all the time and in response to ever-shifting events.

That is clearly what Primakov was trying to do during his two-day visit to India this week.

Speaking in New Delhi on Monday, Primakov called for the establishment of a "security triangle" including Russia, China and India.

Most observers have dismissed Primakov's proposal as mere rhetoric. They have noted that these three countries have disagreed more often than they have agreed. And they have pointed out that China is unlikely to be willing to participate in any such arrangement.

And they have pointed to Primakov's own words on Tuesday when he appeared to back away from his proposal by suggesting that it was little more than a good idea and that in any case, it was never intended to be directed against any third country.

But an analysis that appeared in Tuesday's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," one that echoes the ideas of Indian analyst Bhaskar, suggests that this dismissal of Primakov's proposal fails to understand just what he was trying to achieve under the circumstances.

Writing in the influential Moscow daily, Dmitriy Gornostayev and Sergey Sokut suggest that Primakov had simply taken advantage of the situation created by American and British bombing of Iraq. And they argue that while Primakov's call for the creation of a strategic triangle may seem "ill-considered," "Primakov never says anything just for the sake of it."

By making this proposal now, they write, Primakov is sending a variety of messages to a variety of audiences, messages that he can modify as conditions require.

To the United States and the West more generally, Primakov is sending a "warning" that Moscow intends the East-West relationship to be "far more frank" than it has been up to now. In that sense, Gornostayev and Sokut argue, his words are a propaganda move.

But to India and China, they continue, Primakov's suggestion is more than just words. It represents "an invitation" to cooperation and the latest variant of "a complicated dance" in which Russia will be willing to change partners as conditions around them change.

On the one hand, that stance gives Russia greater flexibility in dealing with the rest of the world. But on the other, it means that Russia will be an ever less reliable partner for anyone, including the Indians and Chinese.

And that pattern of international behaviour, one not captured by many models of international affairs up to now, highlights the new realism of Russian foreign policy, one that will take advantage of opportunities rather than be constrained by commitments.

And that pattern of international behaviour, one not captured by many models of international affairs up to now, highlights the new realism of Russian foreign policy, one that will take advantage of opportunities rather than be constrained by commitments.

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