Ordinarily, when a former columnist makes it to the top in politics, I get a warm feeling. But the emergence of Yevgeny Primakov as Russian foreign minister should send a chill throughout the West.
Boris Yeltsin’s choice of the amiable snake who headed his espionage agency signals the end of Mr. Nice Guy in Russian diplomacy. But the change amounts to far more than a tactical shift to help Yeltsin in coming elections.
Just as the strains in the Sino-Soviet alliance in the ‘60s made possible the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of triangulation, Yeltsin’s surprising turn to Primakov is a harbinger of a new Russo-Chinese entente: That remarriage would foreshadow a turn away from democracy in today’s single-superpower world.
Primakov’s career began in the ‘50s as a Soviet spy in the Middle East. His cover was journalist; as an Arabic-speaking reporter and later columnist for Pravda, he had the code name “Maxim” in the KGB. (Not much of a code; Maximovich is listed as his middle name. His last name, Primakov, which means “stepson” in Russian, may have been taken to conceal Jewish roots that could not have been helpful either in the Arab world or in the KGB.)
As spy, propagandist and academician, he worked his way up in the Communist hierarchy to chairman of the Supreme Soviet, then into the Politburo as an ally of Mikhail Gorbachev’s.
Americans came to know Primakov as chief Soviet advocate of Saddam Hussein just before the Persian Gulf War. Primakov elbowed aside the foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, to try to protect his longtime Iraqi source and ally. President Bush, aware of the longtime Primakov-Saddam connection, was careful not to let the Russian Arabist interfere with cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
Sensing Gorbachev’s weakness, the nimble Primakov created his own secret channel to the rising Yeltsin; when power passed, Primakov was able to break off the foreign intelligence arm of the KGB, setting up an independent fiefdom with himself as chief.
American spooks say he has been a formidable opponent. He built up his espionage cadre at a time of tight budgets by letting agents free-lance - spying by day and running private businesses by night, often supplementing government salaries by extortion of exposable members of former satellite services.
Under Primakov, the mission expanded from spying for security to spying for national profit: He increased the number of agents in the United States, Germany and Japan assigned to steal technology secrets needed by Russian industry. And he skillfully used the U.S. media to send word to Aldrich Ames in prison to continue to resist interrogation, keeping that spy hoping for a swap.
Now the stepson is in place at the top of the foreign-policy heap. He will charm visiting U.S. congressmen and win over journalists with his accessibility. What does his ascension mean?
The life-long Arab expert will no longer allow the Middle East to move toward peace or democracy. The first change will be felt in U.N. policy toward Iraq. Saddam is looking toward his old friend for help in ending sanctions; in the Security Council, Russia will enlist China to help press hard to give Saddam the chance to sell oil to buy Russian arms. And to reconquer Iraqi Kurds now under our protection.
Nor will Islamic fundamentalism go unsupported by Primakov in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. In Syria, after Hafez al-Assad gets all he can from Israel and the United States, he can expect an enticing visit from a man who speaks his language.
But most important is the Chinese connection. This has been slowly building: Right now, China is Russia’s biggest customer of arms for cash. The hard currency China gains from trade with the United States goes to buy tanks and planes and warships from Russia. Thanks to the squishy-soft Clinton trade policy, we are in effect subsidizing the resuscitation of the Russian armaments industry to supply the Chinese army.
Primakov will take this economic entente to the next stage: active diplomatic cooperation. Border disputes will be settled; Russia will block U.N. condemnation of China’s human rights crackdown; China will join Russia in enlisting world support against American export of democracy as “destabilizing.”
Keep your eye on the stepson. He could change your life.