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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time to Rejudge Primakov

If the bizarre and rather silly spy row with Britain serves any purpose, it could be to rescue Yevgeny Primakov from a lot of misplaced Western misconceptions.


The row has turned into an example of Winston Churchill's maxim about the two bulldogs fighting under the carpet. Two bits of the Russian government again seem to be at war with each other and trying to conduct policy on the military principle of the pre-emptive strike. Only when a decision is reached at the highest level is it clear who has won.


In one corner is Mikhail Barsukov's Federal Security Service, or FSB. Barsukov, who has spent most of his KGB career in the Kremlin, not the Lubyanka, is keen to be the "new broom" at the FSB and throw his weight around. Bruised by the Pervomaiskoye debacle, in which his troops were humiliated by Chechen rebels in Dagestan earlier this year, he wants a policy success to prove how effective his organization really is.


On the other side is Primakov representing the Foreign Ministry, an ivory tower of liberalism in the Russian government, and his former sphere of influence -- the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR. The two branches of the old KGB, the more cosmopolitan SVR and the more vicious FSB, have never been friendly and of course it will be SVR people who get thrown out if there are any tit-for-tat expulsions in London.


Primakov has been self-evidently standing up for a reasonable line on the whole issue.


Certain Western commentators will now have to rewrite their political assessments on Primakov and it is about time. When he was appointed in January in succession to Andrei Kozyrev a number of rash predictions were thrown about and one column in The New York Times in particular portrayed Primakov as all but the devil incarnate, readying to drive NATO into the sea.


The first mistaken assumption was that Kozyrev was a pro-Western liberal. His baby looks and fluent English may have given that impression and he did start out in that mold. But by the end, Kozyrev had turned into an opportunist and a hawk, a fellow-traveler with some of Boris Yeltsin's most ruthless policies, like the war in Chechnya.


All the same it was tempting to present the generational change of fresh-faced Kozyrev to the care-worn features and tinted glasses of Primakov as the replacement of a Westernizer by a Cold Warrior. Wrong again. Primakov's supposed hawkishness was adduced primarily from two pieces of information, his heading of the Foreign Intelligence Service and his mission to Saddam Hussein shortly before the Gulf War.


In actual fact Primakov was put in charge of the SVR in 1991 right after the failed coup, when Vadim Bakatin was made head of the KGB. Their charge was to modernize and reform. One of Primakov's first jobs was to curtail the practice of spies using the cover of Russian foreign correspondents. He is no more a master spy-chief than George Bush was when he headed the CIA.


The second implication is not very convincing either. Primakov is an Arabist by background and worked for Pravda in the Middle East. He did go to see Saddam Hussein and try to negotiate a compromise, but so did former British prime minister Edward Heath. But he also seems to have gotten tired of the Middle East.


Boris Pankin, who was briefly Soviet Foreign Minister, tells in his memoirs how Primakov lobbied him in 1991 to become ambassador to England.


The labeling of Primakov as a Cold Warrior is a symptom of muddled Western thinking, in which anyone who was not as devotedly pro-Western as Kozyrev was in 1992 is automatically assumed to be the opposite.


Primakov is, in fact, very much a man of the Gorbachev generation. In 1985, the year Gorbachev was made general secretary, Primakov became director of the Institute of World Economics and International Relations in succession to Alexander Yakovlev and in 1989 he joined Yakovlev's wing of heavyweight intellectual advisers to Gorbachev. After the Vilnius events he was one of those who tried -- unsuccessfully -- to persuade Gorbachev to go to Lithuania and publicly disassociate himself from the hardliners. Incidentally, he has only started wearing the tinted glasses since the death of his much-beloved wife, something that reinforced the reserved strain in his character.


The spy row seems to have shown up Primakov the pragmatist and the professional, in many ways a welcome change from the zig-zagging, self-important Kozyrev. In the current state of relations with Russia, Western governments could not hope for much more.