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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primakov's Oil Weapon




Primakov reflects the prejudices of the old Soviet diplomatic elite. For his generation, the U.S. will always remain the primary rival.


Americans have watched as their erstwhile Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, disintegrated and as its successor, the Russian Federation, has failed to halt its economic and military decline. The once-vaunted Soviet army is a hollow shell. Meantime, Moscow's former Warsaw Pact allies all clamor to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


One influential person unreconciled to the loss of Soviet power, and determined to reverse it, is Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Unlike his genial pro-Western predecessor, Andrei Kozyrev, Primakov reflects Russia's growing xenophobia and the harder international line urged on President Boris Yeltsin by the opposition-dominated State Duma. Primakov first entered government service in 1953, the year of Josef Stalin's death, and he reflects the views and prejudices of the old Soviet diplomatic elite. For his generation, the United States was, and will always remain, the primary rival. This view has only been enhanced by such things as the unchecked wielding of U.S. power in the Persian Gulf and the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet satellites Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.


Primakov's background is well-suited to the tasks of restoring Russia as a major player on the world scene. He is a Middle East specialist, with fluent knowledge of the Arabic language. Furthermore, as a Pravda correspondent in the region from 1966 through 1970, Primakov got to know many of the major political figures of the Islamic world, including Saddam Hussein, whom he describes in one of his many books as an able and relatively moderate character. He also briefly served in the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.


In his writings, Primakov points out that the United States suffers from two liabilities in the Middle East. One, it is tied to Israel by bonds of culture, political affinity and history. This bond automatically sets Washington at odds with much of the Arab and Islamic world while conferring on Russia a natural attraction as a counterweight. At the same time, the U.S. economy, although seemingly omnipotent in an unstable world, is heavily dependent on the continued flow of cheap oil. Much of that oil, as it happens, lies under the Islamic states that Washington has offended by its support of Israel.


These factors were in force even during the Soviet period, of course, and they dictated Moscow's role as a "spoiler" in the Middle East. The Soviet Union armed and supported "rejectionist" states, such as Syria, Saddam's Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Libya. As Soviet power disintegrated from 1988 onward, however, Moscow was in no position to continue this policy. Without the drastic weakening of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-led drubbing of Iraq in 1991 would have been unthinkable. As it was, even then the Soviets made a desperate last-minute effort to prevent a military humiliation of Saddam -- and the emissary Mikhail Gorbachev chose to go on this fruitless errand was Primakov himself.


Following a period of diplomatic retreat, Primakov hopes to re-establish Russian influence by using one of the few levers Moscow has: access to oil. Russia itself has oil reserves estimated to be nearly equal to those around the Persian Gulf, and Moscow's former Muslim Central Asian subjects -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- have vast reserves of their own. Chaos in Russia's politics and economy, plus corruption, have prevented effective exploitation of these resources. Furthermore, although Russia dominates these former dependencies, politically and geographically, and is close to the Persian Gulf, the low level of Russian oil-drilling technology has made it an unattractive supplier.


This is where Primakov believes that Russia can deal with two problems simultaneously: Unable to compete with the West, especially the United States, Russia can rely instead on U.S. unpopularity in the Islamic world to gain a foothold in the Middle East. Thus, last March, Pyotr Rodionov, Russia's energy minister, signed a $3.5 billion deal with the Iraqis, promising to help rebuild some of the oil infrastructure destroyed during the Persian Gulf War. Although not all terms of this agreement are public, it is reasonable to assume that, as a member of the UN Security Council, Russia let it be known that it would prevent any further strengthening of the existing sanctions imposed on Baghdad.


This is what the Russians did during the latest showdown between the United States and Iraq, when Primakov traveled to Baghdad to negotiate a deal that allows Saddam to continue circumventing the UN embargo while keeping U.S. hands tied.


Sharp Russian oil politics provide headaches for Washington, but they do not amount to a renewal of the Cold War. Russian power is much too weak for that, and the largely privatized Russian economy is far too intertwined with the rest of the capitalist world to return to the old days of Soviet-style isolation. Above all else, there is no real ideological impulse dictating an all-out Russian-U.S. face down. Rather, what we are seeing is the re-emergence of an independent Russian foreign policy. It is inevitable that a nation covering more than one-seventh of the world's land mass would have interests that sometimes collide with our own.


Russia may no longer be a superpower, but neither is its influence negligible. Its population enjoys a high level of technical education; its armaments are desirable to those countries at odds with the West; and it possesses nuclear weapons. Primakov's oil weapon may reflect the politics of comparative weakness, but it is nonetheless a reminder that Washington cannot take Moscow for granted.


Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is author of "Selling Stalin." He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.