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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pragmatist Primakov Takes Iraq Star Turn

Seven years ago, Yevgeny Primakov was racing around the Middle East in a futile bid to stop the Persian Gulf war. The Americans regarded him as a meddlesome nuisance. The Iraqis were not eager to listen.

But now, Primakov is finally where he has always thought Russian diplomats should be: at the center of world attention.

The 68-year-old former Pravda correspondent and spymaster, whose staid manner and talk of Russia's "great power'' role is a throwback to Soviet times, has never been happy with Moscow's fall from superpower status.

Primakov's latest diplomatic blitz was designed to restore Russia's influence and to lend a hand to an old client: Saddam Hussein.

Tactically, he put on a bravura performance. With a self-assurance bordering on hubris, Primakov summoned the U.S. secretary of state from India to a 2 a.m. meeting in Geneva, along with her British and French counterparts.

What is less clear is whether Primakov's diplomacy will stick. UN inspectors still have much work ahead of them to sort out the mysteries of Iraq's weapons programs, and Primakov's breakthrough could be short-lived.

But he has managed to temporarily shift the subject to the timetable for lifting sanctions. That is a topic dear to Moscow's heart because Iraq owes it billion of dollars and Russian oil companies are eager to do business in Iraq.

Primakov is bureaucratic survivor. As foreign minister, his professionalism and evident lack of ideology -- admirers call it pragmatism -- have earned him the grudging respect of American diplomats.

But Primakov also has his critics, who note that these have not been the best of years for Russian foreign policy.

A graduate of Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies and a speaker of Arabic, Primakov began his career as a correspondent and later worked for Pravda in the Middle East.

Russian commentators, however, have long associated Primakov with the KGB. Izvestia noted in 1996 that when Primakov covered Iraq's Kurdish insurgency he wrote "not for the newspaper, but for the top political leadership.''

During the 1980s, he served as head of a Soviet research center on the world economy and developed close ties with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Gorbachev made Primakov a special envoy and told him to negotiate a compromise that would stop U.S. attacks against Iraq's Soviet-equipped military.

One of Primakov's trips to Baghdad took place as allied bombs rained down on Iraq. Driven from the Iran-Iraq border in a car camouflaged with dirt, Primakov spent much of the journey worrying that allied warplanes might bomb the official Iraqi motorcade.

But, with the Iraqi leader persuaded his troops could bloody the Americans and the Bush administration determined to teach Baghdad a lesson, it was an impossible assignment.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Primakov became head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB. Domestic politics gave him his next promotion.

As the 1996 presidential election approached, Yeltsin decided his pro-Western foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was a political liability.

Primakov's promise to encourage integration between Russia and other former Soviet republics played well with the Russian public during the election year. But it was mostly talk.

The low point may have come at last month's summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the association of former Soviet republics. Russia was roundly criticized at the meeting for trying to manipulate its neighbors.

Since then, there have even been occasional rumors that Primakov might be replaced, perhaps by Yeltsin's dapper spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky.

The current Iraqi crisis, however, played to Primakov's expertise as an old Middle East hand. The diplomatic task was far easier than trying to stop the Gulf War. Having concluded that it had few good military options the Clinton administration was willing to try diplomacy, even Russian diplomacy. Iraq also was not spoiling for a fight.

Still, as Primakov left Geneva, he could not resist the opportunity to boast and taunt the muscle-flexing Americans. "That's what Russia achieved,'' he said. "Without any use of violence, any use of weapons, without a show of force.''