On June 26, 2015, Yevgeny Primakov, Russian Foreign Minister from 1996-1998 and Prime Minister from 1998-1999, died at the age of 85. As one of the only prominent political figures with a leadership role in the Yeltsin regime to also be a close aide to Vladimir Putin, Primakov's foreign policy ideas and ideological approaches have had a singularly important impact on Russia's international identity since 1991. In many ways, he was the natural successor to long-time Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. But unlike Gromyko, who shaped Soviet grand strategy for decades as a loyal servant of the official line, Primakov was unafraid to challenge higher governing authorities and create his own imprint on Russian strategic thinking.
Primakov's relationship with Vladimir Putin was complicated in its early stages, and at times murky. After being fired by Boris Yeltsin in May 1999, allegedly for Russia's poor economic performance (but more likely because Primakov's commanding personal authority threatened to overshadow Yeltsin's), Primakov was regarded as the front-runner to succeed the ailing President.
Primakov's political aspirations were soon upstaged by a relative unknown, Vladimir Putin, who became a heroic figure in the eyes of many Russians due to his crackdown on Chechen separatism. In reality, Primakov lost out to Putin due to a factional clash within the Kremlin that began after the failed 1991 coup against Gorbachev. Karen Dawisha, author of Putin's Kleptocracy, and a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio, described this factional divide in a speech at the University of Oxford on June 19, 2015 as follows: "I think that people in the KGB who failed in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev worked more stealthily to achieve the same ends, by bringing up a new generation of people who would do the bidding for them. He (Putin) was pulled along."
As KGB Deputy Chairman after the failed coup and a member of Gorbachev's presidential council before it, Primakov's political role in Putin's new order was inevitably relegated from leader-in-waiting to a more indirect consultancy role. Yet Primakov made the most of this new position, and profoundly influenced Russia's international identity. In many ways, Putin's foreign policy towards the West reflects Primakov's ideals as Russian Foreign Minister: disdain for Western interventions in the CIS and traditional Russian/Soviet allied countries, and the embracement of an anti-Western identity premised on multilateral cooperation with the rising powers of the Global South, China and India.
Primakov's Crusade against Western Interventionism
NATO's expansion in the former Eastern Bloc and military intervention against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo, were two of the most defining challenges of Primakov's tenure as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. While NATO expansion has long been regarded by Kremlin policymakers as one of the most salient threats to Russian geopolitical influence, Primakov's handling of NATO during this formative period showed an artful nuance so lacking in Putin's brazen defiance of and conspiratorial rhetoric surrounding NATO. Primakov offered a qualified resistance to NATO's objectives. He combined resolute opposition to troop concentrations and air bases close to Russian soil, with praise for NATO's military command reforms, and cooperation with Russia on Bosnia, nuclear proliferation and anti-ballistic missile policy.
In many ways, Primakov's period as head of the Foreign Ministry was a microcosm of Putin's presidency, shifting from rhetorical assertiveness to overt anti-Western defiance as the public mood in Russia favored more brusque unilateralism. The 1999 Kosovo War cemented this transition. When NATO announced bombings on Yugoslavia, Primakov in mid-flight over the Atlantic, re-routed his plane headed to Washington DC back to Moscow. "Primakov's Loop" as this PR gimmick was called, symbolized the Kremlin's intolerance for and resistance to Western military interventions that infringed on the Russian sphere.
Russia's diplomatic leverage over Yugoslavia declined as a result of this approach, as Russia's opinions on Milosevic became isolated from the international diplomatic consensus. Nevertheless, Primakov's popularity during this period demonstrated the political benefits of defying the West at a time of economic weakness. The surge in Putin's approval ratings after his bombastic rhetorical assaults on the EU and the NATO is merely a more extreme version of the precedent set by Primakov's handling of Yugoslavia.
As Putin's political ally and foreign policy aide, Primakov's scathing opposition to the reckless exercise of American hegemony converged closely with Putin's. During the 2003 Iraq War, Primakov's extensive experience negotiating with Saddam Hussein made him the natural choice to convey Putin's message to the Iraqi dictator. In a last-ditch attempt to thwart Bush's invasion of Iraq, Primakov called on Hussein to resign and handover any Iraqi WMDs to the United Nations.
While Hussein declined Primakov's proposal, his resistance to what many viewed as the most gratuitous act of US imperialism in modern times, won him plaudits in the Kremlin and cemented his powerful role as a Russian policymaker. Russia's steadfast opposition to the extension of the 2011 Libyan mission to the complete overthrow of Gaddafi and to any efforts to undermine Bashar Al-Assad's leadership position in Syria were born out of Primakov's doctrine of recalcitrance towards Western regime-change efforts.
Primakov's Vision of a Multipolar World Order
On October 28, 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the Russia-China-India trilateral relationship as follows: "I believe that in the near future historians will coin a special term to describe Primakov's role in politics. They may call it the Primakov Doctrine." Lavrov's assessment aptly describes Primakov's contribution to a crucial tenet of contemporary Russian foreign policy: anti-Western multilateralism. This multilateral concept began with Primakov's 1999 declaration of a Russia-China-India strategic triangle that would act as a counterweight to US hegemony and would challenge the dominance of Western interests in international institutions. Guardian reporter Jonathan Steele described this multipolar project as the forerunner of the BRICS union.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization formed in 2001 linking Russia and China to Central Asia was the brainchild of Primakov's vision. Sino-Russian cooperation is most extensive in the energy and defense sectors (as the 1989 Western embargo on arms exports to China remains in place). As Russia faced international isolation from the West following its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, Russia's economic dependence on China increased. The Russia-China bloc in the UN Security Council has become increasingly obstructionist to prevent the UN from promoting American exceptionalism and foreign policy double standards. Bilateral trade agreements, arms contracts and joint military exercises have similarly been hallmarks of Russia's relationship with India since Primakov's sacking as Prime Minister.
Conflicts of interest such as China's alliance with Pakistan, lingering frictions between India and China, and the temptation of lower priced gas purchases from Central Asia, have prevented the implementation of Primakov's vision in its ideal form. The rationale for Russia's strategic pivot to China and India also became increasingly politicized in the mid-2000s, as Putin regarded preventing the spread of the colored revolutions to Central Asia to be of paramount importance. Nevertheless, Russia's balancing strategy between China and India under Putin, bears Primakov's imprint firmly and is reminiscent of the Soviet Union's approach in the heyday of its geopolitical power. Primakov's political career was defined by opportunistic changes in loyalty and being his own man, but ironically, his death occurred at a time when his positions are very much the official line and the backbone for Putin's grand strategy.