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National Interest: The Soviet Abroad

posted by eagle on August, 2009 as ANALYSIS / OPINION

The Soviet Abroad
by Anatol Lieven


From the September/October 2009 issue of The National Interest.


Yevgeny PrimakovRussia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present, trans. Paul Gould (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 400 pp., $29.95.

YEVGENY MAKSIMOVICH Primakov’s Russia and the Arabs (which should really be called The Soviet Union and the Arabs, since most of it deals with that period, one in which Moscow still had enormous influence in the Middle East) is the latest contribution to the annals of the international competition for influence and power. The book—by a Moscow insider who held key positions in the USSR’s, and later Russia’s, foreign-policy establishment—is a firsthand account informed by decades of experience of Middle East crises, from the Arab-Israeli wars to Iraq and beyond. It also shows the profound impact of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry on the region and especially on attitudes toward Washington and Moscow in the Muslim world.

During the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 I was in Pakistan, researching for a book; and viewing the war from that perspective was a profoundly disquieting experience. This was not just because of the apparent lunacy of the United States engaging in a really dangerous dispute with Russia over South Ossetia (South Ossetia, for Heaven’s sake?) at a time when such monstrous threats loomed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In some ways equally disturbing was the reaction of the Pakistani media and educated public, including military officers, to whom I lectured at the National Defense University in Islamabad a few weeks later.

Very few Pakistanis indeed have any affection at all for Russia. They remember the helping hand Moscow gave India and Afghanistan in building up their defenses against Pakistan during the cold war, and of course the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 which initiated the Afghan disaster of the past thirty years. Russian atrocities against Muslims in Chechnya have also been given full coverage in Pakistan. And the Pakistani media is rarely restrained or careful about fact-checking when it comes to expressing their prejudices.

Given this background, what was truly striking—and disturbing for a Westerner—was the cool, balanced and objective tone of the discussion of the Russian-Georgian war in Pakistan. Was this the result of some miraculous transformation of opinion in favor of Russia? Not a bit. What it reflects is the fact that when it comes to external behavior, most Pakistanis today can see no difference between Russia and the United States; or even between the old USSR and today’s USA.

I am sorry to say that most ordinary Pakistanis with whom I have spoken even see the Soviet and U.S. military “occupations” of Afghanistan in the same light; and this in turn explains why they see the Taliban as an unpleasant but legitimate resistance movement akin to the Afghan mujahideen. The United States and Pakistan did back these fighters together, but any Pakistani gratitude was wiped out by the way in which (as Hillary Clinton has now admitted) the United States walked away from its responsibilities in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and the end of the cold war.

As far as Pakistani views of the wider U.S. role in the world are concerned, these are shaped above all by developments in the Middle East. U.S. support for Israel, and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are of course the principal (and often grossly exaggerated) themes; and the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the basis of false propaganda about weapons of mass destruction is used constantly to justify crazed anti-American conspiracy theories.

However, even intelligent, well-informed and pro-Western Pakistani liberals who do not share these fantasies are apt to make two points about the United States and the Muslim world: twenty years after the end of the cold war the United States continues to support brutal dictatorships, including Saudi Arabia, which is far more ruthless in the suppression of its population (especially women) than either Iran or Syria. In those twenty years, during which it has been the sole external superpower in the Middle East, America has wholly failed to solve the region’s problems—problems that during the cold war Washington habitually ascribed to malign Soviet influence.

These points are also made with even-greater force by a great many liberal Arab intellectuals. They are not points which it is easy to deny. President Barack Obama has made an excellent start in appealing to Muslim public opinion; but it will take actions, not words, to effect a deep and lasting transformation in the region’s attitude toward America. For many decades now, the affairs of the Middle East have taxed the wisdom and the resources of successive governments in Washington and Moscow. If China is foolhardy enough to become involved in the region, policy makers in Beijing will find themselves facing the same challenges and dilemmas.

PRIMAKOV IS one of the most remarkable figures to have emerged from the later decades of the Soviet Union. He illustrates the extreme complexity of identities and loyalties in the former Soviet Union, which continue to affect relations between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other states. Born in the Ukrainian capital Kiev of mixed Soviet parentage, Primakov was brought up in Tbilisi and speaks fluent Georgian. Skilled in bureaucratic politics, he was also a survivor who served as a Brezhnev-era foreign-policy troubleshooter for the Soviet leadership (though liberal and sophisticated by the standards of the time), and continued to rise in the ranks of successive governments.

As a highly intelligent and ambitious young man fascinated by international affairs and the Middle East, Primakov naturally gravitated to Moscow and service to the Soviet superpower, in loyalty to which he submerged whatever ethnic or local identity (if any) he ever felt. In essence therefore, Primakov is a very familiar figure from the annals of imperial service, who if he had been born a few decades later and left the Soviet Union along with so many intellectuals and their children in the 1970s, could easily have found himself today in the senior ranks of the U.S. foreign-policy and security establishment.

Primakov graduated in 1953 from the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies and became a Middle East correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, simultaneously, as the book makes clear, running secret missions for the Soviet leadership in close cooperation with the KGB. He later became a leading Soviet academic on the Middle East, and in the 1970s and ’80s played an important part in shaping the USSR’s policy toward the region. He identified strongly with the more moderate and statist elements among supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. And in 1989 the Soviet leader made him chairman of the upper house of parliament.

During the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin, Primakov was appointed first the deputy chief of the KGB in charge of foreign intelligence. After the KGB was disbanded in 1991, Primakov became the first director of the new Russian foreign-intelligence service, the SVR, where he remained until 1996. Taking on the role of Russian foreign minister was next, and in that position he abandoned the pro-Western rhetoric and policies of the early 1990s in favor of a mixture of balancing against the West and pragmatic engagement. Keeping with the general view of the Russian security establishment, his conception of the world was determinedly multipolar, strongly opposing U.S. global domination and holding that Russia must naturally be one of several poles of world power. Thus he acted to improve Russia’s relations with China (and helped lay the foundations of the present Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and dreamed in vain of a new Russia-India-China triangular alliance to offset American power.

From September 1998 to May 1999 Primakov was the Russian prime minister. As such, he seemed to be emerging as a candidate to succeed Yeltsin. No doubt for that reason, Primakov was dismissed by the president. Ironically, in the end Yeltsin took on the even-tougher Vladimir Putin as his successor.

In many ways, Primakov can be seen as Putin’s predecessor in the field of foreign policy. He served as a senior adviser to Putin, and the two men are very similar in their basic attitude toward the power and role of the Russian state. Putin, however, has been more modest and limited than Primakov in his international goals, possibly because he was far less deeply steeped in personal experience with the Soviet Union as a global superpower. But in domestic affairs Primakov has been the one to strike a somewhat more liberal note, supporting a crackdown on the power of the oligarchs, but also warning against the re-creation of state monopolies.

AS SHOULD be expected from the above, Primakov’s book on the Middle East is part memoir, part scholarly analysis and part highly intelligent propaganda. Thus it is no surprise to read a defense of Soviet and Russian policy in the region, a critique of U.S. and Israeli policy, and a form of apologia pro vita sua, as far as his own career in the region is concerned. As such, it can usefully be read in conjunction with similar works by U.S. officials like Henry Kissinger, James Baker or, more recently, Dennis Ross. None, of course, should be read as objective history—assuming that there is such a thing when it comes to the Middle East.

This of course is precisely what makes assessing the value of Primakov’s book so difficult. Not only the interpretation, but the basic facts of so many of the episodes he describes are bitterly contested; and the origins of so many of the actions—whether by Washington, Moscow or Middle Eastern capitals—remain shrouded in secrecy.

Inevitably, Primakov is at his strongest, or has the easiest task, in critiquing U.S. policy; and at his weakest in defending past Soviet policy (making a case for Russia’s post-cold-war agenda is of course easier because its role has been so limited). This reflects not only the luxuriantly rich and varied number of mistakes made by Washington and Moscow but also the horribly complex and recalcitrant nature of the region, which has baffled policy makers in both capitals (and in Paris and London before them).

Interestingly for someone from a militantly secular background, Primakov is also ahead of many (though not of course all) U.S. analysts in recognizing fully the critical distinction between Islamic fundamentalism (which takes many forms, most of them pacific and apolitical) and Islamist revolutionary militancy and terrorism. On the other hand, as is to be expected both from someone of his background and as the representative of a country which has suffered so terribly from Islamist terrorism, Primakov is extremely hostile to Islamist extremism, and candid about the ways in which the failings of both Soviet and U.S. policy contributed indirectly to its rise.

As a key figure in the making of Soviet and Russian Middle East policy for more than forty years, Primakov is of course considerably less candid in general about his own side’s policies—or shall we say, in the classic British bureaucratic phrase, “economical with the truth.” This applies to statements like the following:

The Soviet Union never sought to undermine these [pro-U.S. Arab] conservative regimes from within, nor did it try to turn Egypt, Syria, or Iraq against them. On the contrary, Moscow tried on many occasions to overcome disputes between Arab countries—even disputes within countries—regardless of where they stood, and not only on issues related to its own Middle East policy.

Similar is his assertion that despite opposition to Israeli policies, the Soviet Union never encouraged groups and countries in the Middle East to reject a reasonable peace with Israel. Primakov also makes at least one very grave and unproven allegation, with only highly circumstantial and implausible evidence: that Henry Kissinger had prior knowledge of Anwar Sadat’s planned attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur War. On the other hand, the book is full of what seems reliable detail on previously hidden aspects of Soviet diplomacy, like a series of secret meetings that Primakov conducted with the Israeli government of then–Prime Minister Golda Meir at a time when the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations with Israel.

At certain moments there is an element of special pleading. This is particularly true in the case of Iraq, where Primakov has been involved for much of his career. Thus Primakov seems anxious to play down the brutality of Saddam Hussein in his early years, when he was chiefly a Soviet ally (thanks to a Soviet policy with which Primakov himself was closely associated), while giving full coverage to his savagery in the 1980s, when Moscow and Washington competed to support him.

Back then, as one of the shapers of Soviet policy toward the Middle East, Primakov found himself in effect aligned with the Reagan administration—both supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against revolutionary Iran. Like Washington, in the process Moscow implicated itself in the Baath regime’s monstrous crimes, including the poison-gas attacks on the Kurds in 1988. As he recounts, over the years Moscow and Washington both played with the Kurds (at least until Washington belatedly came to their aid in 1991), sometimes wooing and assisting them, sometimes helping regimes in Baghdad crush them—all according to convenience. He also served as a personal envoy to Gorbachev in 1990, attempting to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Putin too used him as a special envoy to the Iraqi dictator. None of the Soviet Union’s missteps have been forgotten or forgiven by Iranians, whose attitudes toward Russia and responsiveness to Russian advice are therefore a great deal less warm than some in Washington hope (or fear).

In Iran, whatever the present failings of Russia’s stance, it can hardly be denied that it was Washington’s, not Moscow’s, policy toward the country between 1953 and 1978 that helped bring about Ayatollah Khomeini’s disastrous revolution. It is similarly indisputable that both the Clinton and Bush administrations threw away repeated chances of compromise with Tehran under the liberal presidency of Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005, contributing to the present dangerous impasse. Moscow’s impact on developments in Iran over the past six decades has been very limited by comparison.

On Iran’s nuclear policy, Primakov makes some entirely sensible statements, recommending in essence a return of the international community to a strategy based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, he fails to go into the question of Moscow’s influence over Tehran, and whether it should exert tougher pressure on the regime over the nuclear issue—possibly (though this is pure conjecture on my part) because he realizes that Moscow’s sway is not in the end all that great.

In general, however, in this book Primakov can be said to have been about as balanced and frank as one might reasonably have expected from someone with his past and his position. His book is full of fascinating anecdotes about the conduct of Soviet policymaking, including the difficulty of presenting facts to Moscow when the government and editors there had made up their mind on an issue—something with which U.S. officials and journalists in the region will be bitterly familiar. He too has certain moments of wry humor and national self-mockery:

I had brought along a couple of Soviet-made Poljot wristwatches to give [the sons of Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, one of whom is now a leader of the pro-American forces in Iraqi Kurdistan] as presents, but was somewhat embarrassed to see that they were wearing Rolexes.

What I mainly drew from this book was a deeply depressing picture of errors and misdeeds by both superpowers in the region, interacting with the region’s own appalling failings and conflicts. In Iraq, at different moments, Washington and Moscow bore chief responsibility for fostering the monsters of the Baath regime and Saddam Hussein, ending in the disastrous U.S. invasion of 2003. In Afghanistan, the results of the original crime of the Soviet invasion were made far worse by America’s repeated alternation between overreaction and criminal neglect.1 

IT IS worth noting that Primakov’s criticisms of past U.S. policy, though trenchant, are couched in entirely pragmatic and nonideological terms; and this reflects the wider character of the Russian administration and establishment. Primakov is of course a Russian patriot (or rather, I would say, still at heart a Soviet patriot), but the views he expresses in his final chapter, on the future of the Middle East, are shared by a great many moderate realist thinkers in Washington, including (in private at least) some in the present U.S. administration.

And, despite his settling of some old scores, Primakov does not end his book on an anti-American note. As Primakov writes—in general, correctly—in the Middle East at least, “After the end of the cold war, Russia ceased to ‘play’ the United States in a ‘game’ that no one could win: it dropped the idea that anything that was in American interests was necessarily harmful to Russian interests and vice versa.” He strongly advocates U.S.-Russian cooperation to try to solve some of the problems of the region, starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is doing so much to fuel Islamist extremism and terrorism. He emphasizes the tremendous improvement in Moscow’s relations with Israel since the end of the cold war, an improvement backed by innumerable personal ties. And he points out that even during the height of the cold war, Moscow and Washington managed to work together sufficiently to prevent conflicts in the Middle East from turning into wider hostilities. Today,

Russia could play an important role in creating the right conditions for the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, be it as a member of the Middle East Quartet or independently. What differentiates Russia from the other members of this group is that it enjoys good relations not only with Israel and Fatah, but also with all parties that could exert a strong influence on the circumstances of any negotiations: Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Hamas, Hizbollah, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab nations.

If the United States is interested in finding international partners with which to work in the Middle East (which it may not be, even under the Obama administration), then it could indeed do worse than look to Russia. The other members of the “Quartet” on Middle East peace are the United Nations, which has no real role, and the European Union, which is crippled by internal divisions and historical burdens. Looming somewhere in the middle distance is the possibility of a stronger Chinese role in the region, but we have no idea yet whether China will in fact seek such influence, or if so what China’s goals will be.

For the United States genuinely to seek cooperation with other major powers in the Middle East and elsewhere, it needs to do something which, despite the occasional gesture by figures like Obama, the U.S. establishment is deeply unwilling and perhaps constitutionally incapable of doing. It must recognize that while there is no question whatsoever of the immense differences between U.S. and Soviet domestic policy, and the immeasurable superiority of the American model, this was not always true of U.S. and Soviet foreign policy outside Europe. This key point is well understood by the peoples of South Asia and the Middle East, and it accounts for the attitudes of Pakistanis and Arabs.

During the cold war, I was myself a committed anti-Soviet cold warrior, and I was willing to support ruthless policies if these were necessary to defeat Soviet Communism. But I also saw something of the disastrous and immoral errors of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and knew of them elsewhere. And I thought that since contrary to expectations the cold war ended so peacefully, it should be possible for the victors generously and candidly to admit that they too had committed grave crimes and mistakes in the course of that struggle. In the words of Owen Harries, former editor of this journal (a true conservative and certainly no geopolitical dove):

During the cold war—a struggle against what was truly an evil empire—there was some justification in maintaining that similar behavior by Washington and Moscow should be judged differently, because the intrinsic moral character of the two actors was so different. But that was due less to the unique virtue of the United States than to the special vileness of the Soviet Union, and even then applying double standards was a tricky business, easily abused.
In the more mundane world of today there is no justification for applying one standard to the rest of the world and another to America. . . .
Not only does insistence on double standards seem hypocritical to others, thereby diminishing American credibility and prestige, but, even more seriously, it makes it impossible to think sensibly and coherently about international affairs. And . . . that is a fatal drawback for an indispensable nation.2

A reexamination of past U.S. policies can therefore help improve the chances of future cooperation with Russia, China and other states against dangers which threaten us all. It is a partnership which tough but deeply pragmatic figures like Yevgeny Primakov would be glad to join.


Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. He is currently researching for a book on Pakistan, to be published next year.

1 For an acute and deeply researched study of the strange symmetry between many U.S. and Soviet approaches to the third world, see Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

2 Owen Harries, “Three Rules for a Superpower to Live By,”International Herald Tribune, August 23, 1999.

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