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Analysis From Washington: New Traditions For Russian Foreign Policy

Prague, 9 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - During Yevgeniy Primakov's first year as foreign minister, Russia once again has behaved like a traditional great power, routinely seeking to play one group of countries against another in order to maximize its influence and to maintain its freedom of maneuver.

A sharp departure from both the reflexively anti-Westernism of Soviet times and the almost equally reflexive pro-Westernism of Primakov's predecessor Andrey Kozyrev, this new traditionalism represents Moscow's response to the decline in Russian power and to other changes in the world since the end of the Cold War.

But despite the hopes of some, this traditional basis for future Russian foreign policy is unlikely to make Moscow's approach to the world more predictable. And that poses some enormous challenges to the international community.

In an interview given to the ITAR-TASS news agency on Wednesday marking the first anniversary of his appointment, Primakov took full credit for the new freedom of action his approach has given to the Kremlin.

Primakov suggested that in the last year Moscow has rejected the notion of the search for a single enemy, "the romantic vision" of a strategic union with the United States, and any acceptance of a unipolar world based on a single superpower, all three of which had tied Moscow's hands and worked against its interests.

Instead, he said, Moscow now charts its course on the basis of its own national interests through a "multi-polar world" in which there are at least five major regional powers -- Russia, the United States, China, Japan and Europe.

This very complexity, the Russian foreign minister argued, has given Moscow "broad opportunities for maneuver and multi-directional diplomacy."

Just how broad these opportunities may be, how difficult they may be to counter, and how much they may contribute to unpredictability on the international scene were all suggested by three cases Primakov and other Russian commentators mentioned on his first anniversary in office.

Just by playing up the multi-polar nature of the world, Russia under Primakov's guidance has sought to demonstrate to Washington that the United States has become far less central to Russia than it was in the past.

As one Moscow newspaper noted this week, Primakov did not visit the American capital once during 1996 despite his frequent travels to the other regional power centers. In Primakov's own words, Moscow was trying to "make up for an 'excessive inclination' towards the West that existed in the past."

This virtual declaration of independence from the United States, Primakov added, has allowed Russia to both win support from the other power centers and even to put additional pressure on the United States to make concessions to Russian positions.

Primakov took the lead in Russia's rapprochement with China. While he stressed that this did not point to "the rebirth of an ideological union" between the two, he suggested that Beijing and Moscow did have many common interests.

Moreover, the Russian foreign minister did everything to indicate that Moscow viewed China as an equal. "If we declare China to be our strategic partner, we now mean that as seriously as if we were referring to Washington and Bonn," Primakov explained.

Such a declaration, of course, elevates China as a card Russia may hope to play against other powers such as Europe and Japan. But it simultaneously devalues earlier Russian declarations of "strategic partnership" with the United States and others precisely by increasing their number.

Primakov continued his campaign against NATO expansion. By playing up tensions between Europe and the United States over American influence on the continent and European desires for a greater role within the alliance and a greater say in international affairs more generally.

In each of these three cases, Primakov sought to enlist support from the relatively weaker powers against the stronger one -- typically the United States -- in order to advance Russian interests. But in each case, he held out the possibility that Moscow could quickly reverse itself or even change sides if concessions were forthcoming.

Such a tactic is part and parcel of Primakov's new traditionalist approach. And it suggests why an assertive but relatively weaker power may get its way in a competition with a stronger one.

But it also makes rapid changes in the pattern of cooperation and conflict among the major powers more rather than less likely.

Such a world would be entirely familiar to European diplomats of a century ago, but it is not one that many contemporary statesmen have experienced or had expected to have to respond to.