Washington, March 7 (RFE/RL) - Russian Foreign Minister
Yevgeny Primakov has begun to give specific content to the "new look"
in Moscow's foreign policy.
In an interview with Izvestiya on Wednesday, Primakov argues -- as
has Russian President Boris Yeltsin -- that Moscow must "more
vigorously and effectively" defend Russia's interests but do so in a
way that will not reignite a new "cold war."
More specifically, he suggests that Russia must again become a
counterweight to Western and especially American power, that Moscow
should press for tighter integration of the former Soviet space, and
that Russia can begin to rebuild its international position by
seeking allies in Asia and the Middle East rather than in the West.
All three of these ideas pose serious challenges to Western and
specifically American interests.
Appointed because many in Russia felt that his predecessor Andrei
Kozyrev had been too deferential to Washington and the West, Primakov
has consistently argued that Moscow must be tougher in defending its
state interests. In his latest interview, he rejects any form of
"strategic alliance" with "former Cold War adversaries," argues that
Russia must become an international "counterweight" to those
adversaries, and warns that any enlargement of NATO would inevitably
lead to a revival of the Russian military and a more assertive
Russian policy in Eastern Europe.
Moreover, he demands that Russia be allowed back into regional
negotiations such as those in the Middle East in recognition of its
power in the world. But reflecting Russian weakness, he carefully
does not name Moscow's "adversaries" in the Cold War, says he wanted
to avoid direct conflicts with the West, and notes that Russia in
reality lacks the ability to veto NATO enlargement.
Similarly, Primakov advocates a much tougher line than his
predecessor on the reintegration of the former Soviet Union. Not
only does he speak about the "parts of the former Soviet Union"
rather than simply the CIS -- something the non-CIS Baltic states are
certain to find disturbing -- but he argues that further economic
reform requires this integration, thus suggestiong to the West that
it would be undermining Russia's transformation unless it backed or
at least did not oppose Moscow's efforts to reintegrate the former
But reflecting an awareness of the fears of many in these newly
independent states and the sensitivities of many in the West, the
Russian foreign minister again denies that Moscow is behaving as an
"imperialist" power. Instead, he says, the impetus for reintegration
comes "from all sides," not just from Russia.
And finally, Primakov suggests that Russia should be looking South
and East for allies rather than to the West. Within the CIS, he argues
for closer ties to the Central Asian countries, dismissing the
suggestions of many Russian commentators that there has been a
"revival of feudalism there" and that Russian involvement with those
countries would only weigh Russia down.
Primakov's words may be the intellectual foundation of the announcement also on Wednesday that Yeltsin will propose the closer integration of Russia, Belarus, and
Kazakhstan -- significantly, not Ukraine -- later this month.
Beyond the CIS, Primakov argues that Russia must become a supporter
of those countries in the Middle East who are concerned about
Washington's domination of the peace process and who want Moscow back
This last point may prove to be the most important part of
Primakov's agenda. A longtime Middle East hand with close ties to a
wide variety of Arab and Iranian leaders -- perhaps not accidentally
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati will be visiting Moscow
this week -- Primakov clearly believes that he can begin to recoup
Moscow's international position by getting involved in precisely that
Given Moscow's dependence on oil and gas exports for hard currency
earnings and the benefits that Russia would gain were the price of
oil and gas to rise, Primakov's words suggest that Moscow at least
wants to raise the spectre of a new geopolitical competition in the
Middle East as a way of putting pressure on Western Europe which
relies heavily on Russian natural gas and on the U.S. which very much
wants the peace process in the Middle East to continue. Whether he
or Moscow as a whole can make good on this implied threat, of course,
remains an open question.
But before anyone draws too apocalytpic conclusions from Primakov's
words, three observations are in order. Together, they suggest that
it may be a long way from an Izvestiya interview to actual Russian
foreign policy action.
First, Primakov's interview reflects the policy preferences of only
one actor -- albeit a very important one -- within a Russian
government still very much divided on these and other questions.
Second, the foreign minister's words, even to the extent that they
do reflect the policies of the government as a whole, are a statement
of intentions rather than a reflection of Moscow's ability to realize
And third, Primakov's interview, like his appointment in the first
place, comes during Yeltsin's re-election campaign and thus may be
directed as much at disgruntled Russian voters as at their ostensible
To say all this, however, is not to trivialize what Primakov has
said or to suggest that the West should fail to respond. Whatever
some may say, words do matter -- and especially in international
affairs. They set the tone for discourse among countries and,
unchallenged, open the way to action. In his latest interview,
Primakov has laid down the gauntlet. The coming weeks will show
whether the West will respond by defending its interests precisely
when Moscow is more vigrously defending its own.