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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Primakov's New/Old Line

Washington, Aug. 12 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov says Moscow will increase its efforts to counter American influence throughout the world, even though it would be doing so from a position of relative weakness.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Russian government newspaper "Izvestiya" published on Friday, Primakov claimed that his ministry -- and a new presidential Foreign Policy Council that it will dominate -- now have effective control over Moscow's foreign policy.

And that policy, Primakov said, would be designed to "defend Russia's national interests" and prevent the evolution of international relations into "a unipolar world under U.S. command."

Specifically, he argued that this tough stand, one that recalls the policy pursued by the Soviet government, would have three main features:

Primakov said that "Russia should be present as an active participant" throughout the world -- the Middle East, Asia, and everywhere else -- just as it did at the end of the Soviet period.

Primakov argued that from now on, Moscow would no longer be willing to take on trust the oral promises and statements of Western officials. "Dialogue must be backed up, put on paper," the Russian foreign minister said. "On many occasions, they [Western diplomats] have told us one thing and then the opposite has happened."

Primakov stated that Moscow would continue to oppose vigorously any NATO enlargement to the East unless Moscow has a voice in the transformation of that alliance. "Only after that," the Russian foreign minister said, could anyone "tackle the question of whether or not to expand."

Noting that Moscow was pleased by recent Ukrainian statements that Kyiv had no plans to seek NATO membership, Primakov then staked out the hardest Russian line to date against Baltic membership in NATO. He said that "Russia is not just categorically, but ultra-categorically opposed to this."

And he stressed that Moscow's opposition to Baltic membership must not "'be interpreted as indirect consent on our part to other countries 'joining.'"

All three of these positions would seem to put Russia on a collision course with Washington and the West more generally -- even though Primakov went out of his way to say that "there has been progress in relations with the United States on many questions" and even though Moscow has found a common language with many in Europe who no longer "blindly follow the American line."

But as Primakov himself conceded, Moscow enters these upcoming foreign policy battles from a much "weakened" position. He acknowledged that "Russia cannot be compared with the Soviet Union, even in terms of military potential" and that Russia can no longer provide the assistance to many countries as it did in the past.

Moreover, he made the startling admission that his ministry had become now more successful in holding on to its officials than it had been under his predecessor, less because work there had become more interesting than because the ministry was now subsidizing their lunches and because they had fewer alternatives in the "now very fragile" Russian economy.

In sum, Primakov sketched out an ambitious program, one that recalls much from the Soviet past but also one that Moscow now has few chances to achieve. Unless, that is, other countries prove willing to sacrifice their interests in the face of Russian assertiveness.