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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin's Loose Cannon

Heavy in the jowls, always in the thick of Russia's merry-go-round of political crises, and unrelentingly aggressive by demeanor, Vyacheslav Kostikov is the bulldog who guards the gates of the Kremlin.


In the rarified world of spokesmen for presidents, Kostikov may also be unique. For where else is it generally accepted that the presidential spokesman does not actually speak for his boss?


Kostikov has given an instructive but hardly unusual performance over the past week, hurling hardline reactions at NATO, Washington and the State Duma that reflected neither what Yeltsin nor his Foreign Ministry subsequently said on these matters.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Kostikov said in response to the diplomatic drama surrounding Sarajevo, "despite its peacekeeping rhetoric, is still a captive to Cold War ideology." The parliament, after it passed an amnesty for the leaders of the August 1991 coup and last October's uprising, was guilty, he said, of "glaring irresponsibility" and lacked "morality."


As for the United States, Kostikov warned Washington against returning "to the psychology of the Cold War, growing mistrust and a new wave of spy mania," over the Aldrich Ames affair.


When President Boris Yeltsin's turn to speak came Thursday, there were indeed some tough words for NATO, giving notice that Russia was not prepared to stand by and watch while the Western military alliance projected its power into the former Soviet bloc. Nothing about being imprisoned in "Cold War ideology," however.


The president did not even mention the amnesty directly in his 50-minute speech to parliament, let alone accuse the Duma of lacking morals. Nor did he mention the Ames spy case that has so upset Washington. Andrei Kozyrev shrugged it off as unimportant.


Kostikov is, to say the least, a special case among spokesmen. That has nothing to do with his background. He studied journalism -- including two years in Sheffield, England -- and spent his professional life as a journalist at the Novosti and RIA news agencies. What is unusual is that just because Kostikov announces something does not mean that Yeltsin would agree.


Dee Dee Myers, for example, would soon lose her job if she were to hang Bill Clinton out to dry with the kind of bullhorn statements that are Kostikov's daily bread. Even the manipulative Bernard Ingham, who acted as Margaret Thatcher's spokesman, would never has sailed as close to the wind as Kostikov, despite the fact that he enjoyed the protection of anonymity.


All leaders have some means of flying outrageous statements past the public -- statements with which they can later deny any connection. But they rarely use their spokesman for this; there is simply too little deniability.


For those who have covered politics elsewhere, this can be a little confusing. For when is a Kremlin statement not a Kremlin statement? On the few occasions when Kostikov's sallies have been thrown back at Yeltsin, they have been deemed the spokesman's "personal op-inion." Since when did official spokesmen announce personal opinions?


No Russian reporter, of course, would be troubled by this confusion. Yeltsin's chief spokesman clearly serves an entirely different purpose from his opposite in the White House or at Downing Street. Unlike Dee Dee Myers, Kostikov is very much a player in his own right in the political struggle here. He is the main reason why one could always say that the Kremlin gave as good as it got from loose cannons in the opposition like Ruslan Khasbulatov or, in the present day, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He floats the tough line or veiled threat while others can adopt a more statesmanlike role.


What was curious about Kostikov's performance this week was that he ventured further afield than usual. By and large, his venom has been reserved for opponents at home, primarily in the legislature, with the odd excursion into the tendentiously named "near abroad." This time, however, he turned his fire on NATO and Washington.


In the Western news reports coming out of Moscow, suddenly there were disclaimers added to Kostikov's statements, warning the uninitiated that he is often outspoken and that his attacks should not be taken at face value.


For policymakers, even with the disclaimers, Kostikov's role has to be frustrating, especially since one is forced to rely upon him so much given the limits on access to the Russian president. Often there is just the one loose cannon booming from the walls of the Kremlin.