Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 3

Foreign Policy: Russia Turns East

by Stanislav Lunev

Dramatic changes have taken place in the Moscow leadership. Andrei Kozyrev has been replaced as Russia’s minister of foreign affairs by the significantly tougher politician Yevgeny Primakov, a former highly-placed party functionary and, in recent years — the director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the successor of the former KGB’s First Main Directorate. Appointed as director of the USSR’s SVR in the fall of 1991 by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, Yevgeny Primakov was confirmed in his post in December of that year by Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and has "outlived" the directors of the other Russian special services, who were changed every few months.

While he was the leader of Russian political intelligence, Yevgeny Primakov only rarely permitted himself to make public speeches, and he could be seen on the screen of Russian television, for the most part, only during sessions of the Russian Security Council, when, no matter how hard he tried, he could not hide from reporters’ cameras. But, on the day after his appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he held his first press conference, in the course of which he briefly sketched out his vision of the main directions of future Russian foreign policy.

In particular, underlining press speculation about his views on Russian foreign policy towards the West and relations with the North Atlantic alliance, Yevgeny Primakov said that he had a "negative" attitude towards the expansion of NATO, which, in his words, would be counterproductive for the stabilization of the situation in Europe and, undoubtedly, would lead to the creation of a "new geopolitical situation for Russia."(1) After noting his intention to defend Russia’s national interests, corresponding to her position as a "great power," the new minister emphasized that his policy would not harm the development of Russian relations with the U.S., and that he would not like to be declared a "persona non grata" in the U.S.

Neither confirming nor denying reports that he was an advocate of the restoration of the former USSR, the new leader of Russia’s foreign policy noted that "the question of the restoration of the Soviet Union" was "not on the agenda at the present time." But after that, Yevgeny Primakov said directly that the main priorities of current and future Russian policy ought to be the reinforcement of ties with the other former Soviet republics, and also with such countries as China, Japan, and the countries of the Middle East.

By saying this, the new minister confirmed hints, which have been circulating in the Russian and foreign press, that there would be a fundamental shift in the main direction of Russian foreign policy, which would be reoriented from the development of close relations with the West towards the formation of more steadfast ties with the East, including the creation of new political, and possibly, military-organizational structures in Asia, which could balance the recent development of Russian ties with the leading Western democracies, which have not been completely satisfactory for Russia.

A sense of dissatisfaction in Russian military and political circles with the West, and a feeling that Russia has become dependent on the West, has become increasingly significant. In this respect, the opinion of specialists in the Moscow Institute of Defense Research (IOI), which works for the Defense Ministry, the Armed Forces General Staff, and the Russian special services, could be important.

In the opinion of IOI experts, Western policy towards NATO’s future was a direct attempt to isolate Russia and "squeeze" her out of Europe.(2) The eastward expansion of the NATO bloc was deemed inevitable and was said to be planned to take place in several stages. In the first stage, in the course of two to three years, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary would be incorporated into NATO. During the second stage, according to the report, near the year 2000, NATO plans to incorporate Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Finland and Austria would also be included in NATO in this stage.

Moreover, these specialists in military policy think that in the third stage of NATO’s expansion, which will last until 2005, the entry of Ukraine into the North Atlantic alliance cannot be excluded, but Russia would not be let in "under any circumstances." The main initiator of NATO’s eastward expansion was said to be Germany, which purportedly made the final decision on this after the completion of the withdrawal of Russian troops from that country in August 1994. In this sense, according to the experts, it is possible to speak of the resurgence of German expansionism towards the east and south-east, which, already twice in this century, has sparked the fire of world war and which has become possible at the present time under the cover of the American "nuclear umbrella."

The IOI experts declared the U.S. to be the other initiator of NATO’s eastward expansion, and emphasized that, in the opinion of a significant number of influential representatives of the American elite, such a turn of events would make it possible for the U.S. to consolidate its leading position on the European continent, and help compensate for American economic weakness in the region before the European Union, headed by Germany. In addition, it was indicated that Russia’s policy of "unilateral disarmament," which "undermined the world’s strategic security," should be re-examined, including with respect to the START-II and the 1972 ABM treaties, signed by the Russian side, which "burden Russia and put her in a disadvantageous position."

The IOI specialists said that assurances of Western politicians that NATO’s expansion would not harm Russia’s national security should not be trusted, noting that just two years before, when the future of that military-political alliance was undetermined, Russia had been assured that NATO had no intention of expanding, and accepting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as new members. But today, people are already discussing proposals for deploying nuclear weapons in the Czech Republic and in Poland, operation plans exist for throwing NATO mobile forces into the Baltic states in the event of a conflict with Russia, and the idea of creating a 60,000 man "Baltic corps" of Polish, Danish, and German troops is being discussed.

The specialists let it be understood that, if the geopolitical and strategic situation on the European continent changed, that Russia should look for new partners and, possibly, allies, in cooperation with whom, the Russian side could withstand Western expansion to the east and south-east. That the proposals and conclusions of the IOI specialists were not the fruit of their imagination alone, and in many respects, correspond to the views of Russia’s highest military and political leadership, was unexpectedly confirmed by Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev himself, who incautiously said that if NATO expanded, the Russian side would be forced to look for new "military partners."(3)

It was not hard, after Yevgeny Primakov’s press conference, to name these partners, and "Russia’s great eastern neighbor"–China–ought to be placed first among them. Continuing to demonstrate to the whole world the possibility of "Chinese-style real socialism" under the totalitarian leadership of the Chinese Communist party, this country, for many years, has impressed the Kremlin leaders with its ability to foster economic development, and to increase the prosperity of its population.

In the political sphere, there are none of the serious contradictions or ideological disagreements which characterized Soviet-Chinese relations from the sixties to the eighties, and the disputed border questions, which were taken off the agenda back in 1991, are being solved without substantial problems. Economic ties between the two neighbors are strong as never before and are developing in a stable manner, the shelves of Russian stores are filled with Chinese staples [prodovol’stvennie tovary] and industrial goods, and trains full of high-quality Russian raw materials cross the Chinese border every day, carrying the burden of Chinese industry and increasing its competitiveness on the world market.

Beginning in 1992, military ties between Russia and China also began to develop, characterized by extremely active military exchanges on the highest level, and cooperation between the two countries in the development and production of the most modern weapons systems. The Russo-Chinese Intergovernmental Commission on Military and Technical Cooperation, whose fourth session completed its work successfully last December in Moscow, is working quite well, under the leadership of First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets and Deputy Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Council, Col. Gen. Liu Huatsin.(4) On the basis of introducing identical and similar weapons systems, the weapons integration of the Russian armed forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is taking place, and the real preconditions are being created for making interchangeable weapons and ammunition.

Moreover, cooperation between Russia and China is expanding in the area of intelligence, which is creating serious preconditions for forming a climate of mutual trust in Russo-Chinese relations, even in the sphere of guaranteeing the two countries’ national security. An agreement on such cooperation, by the way, was signed in Beijing at the end of the summer of 1992, by the present Russian minister of foreign affairs. It envisaged the restoration of the cooperation in the area of intelligence which had been cut off in 1959.

According to a Washington Times report, this secret treaty covered the activities of Russian Military Strategic Intelligence (GRU) and the Foreign Intelligence Service, which are cooperating with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Military Intelligence Directorate.(5) In connection with this agreement, the report noted the "anxiety of unnamed American officials over the fact that this cooperation will be directed towards coordinating Russia’s and China’s efforts in conducting intelligence activities against the U.S. and other Western countries, first of all, in the collection of information about modern advanced technologies."

Naming Japan as the second in the list of countries with which Russia ought to develop priority relations, Yevgeny Primakov, as befits a long-time head of an intelligence agency, dissembled a little at his January 12 press conference. And this is because the possible development of the whole complex of Russo-Japanese ties is based on the resolution of an as yet unresolved question of real principle, that of the so-called "Northern Territories," or the four islands of the Kurile chain–Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and Habomai–whose return the Japanese government has been demanding for half a century. The complexity of this problem, linked with the territorial integrity of both Russia and Japan, is holding up the improvement of ties between Tokyo and Moscow, and, undoubtedly, will complicate any steps towards a possible political rapprochement between the two countries.

But the new Russian minister’s statement of the need to develop Russia’s relations with Asian countries corresponds completely to reality. The preservation of close Russian political, economic, and military ties with such countries as North Korea, Vietnam, and India, needs no explanation. And new Russian arms supplies to these states, including the most modern weapons systems, (surface-to-air missile complexes for the North Korean and other armies, for example) forces one to think about the real possibility that, if not alliances, then cooperation in the military sphere, between Russia and these countries, could be developed and expressed in the form of pacts and bilateral alliances.

As regards the Middle Eastern countries of that continent, Iran’s priority cannot be doubted. Close and friendly relations were established long ago between Tehran and Moscow, characterized in the political plane, by the cooperation of the two countries in their efforts to deny the West access to the oil wealth of the Caspian Sea basin and by the political and economic strangling of all the attempts of Azerbaijan, the only Muslim former union republic which has refused to knuckle under to Moscow, to get a direct outlet to the Western market for its oil. Russia’s shipments of the most modern weapons systems to Iran, her granting Iran access to nuclear technology, which is quite dubious from the standpoint of international security–this is far from being a complete list of the questions of Russian-Iranian bilateral relations.

In this respect, it is also worth examining future Russian-Iraqi cooperation, in light of the constant Russian calls for lifting the UN trade embargo against Baghdad, which would enable Iraq to pay its multi-billion dollar debt to Moscow. What Soviet-Iraqi military cooperation in the 1980s led to is well-known to everyone, as well as the fact that its initiator and builder is now Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, who, exactly five years ago, in the capacity of the Soviet president’s special envoy, demonstrated his friendly relations with Saddam Hussein before the television cameras during his visit to Baghdad just before the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

Proceeding from the existing geopolitical and strategic situation on the Asian continent, it is difficult to suppose that a multilateral military structure could arise in that region which would be able to withstand the West as a whole, and NATO in particular. But, already at the present time, the preconditions exist for the emergence in the near future of bilateral military-political pacts and alliances, whose participants, out of calculations of their own, and in part, mutual interest, will strive for closer cooperation in the military area, and the architect of their creation will be the present Russian Federation. What these coming unions will be like–time will tell, but the process of their creation will be defined not only by the sides participating in them, but also by the leading Western democracies, on whose reaction to this, the very future of the West, in many ways, could depend.

One event which happened at the same time as Yevgeny Primakov’s appointment, can also bear witness to the possibility of serious shifts in Russian policy, above all, in military policy. By presidential order, on January 10, Yevgeny Primakov’s first deputy, Col. Gen. Vyacheslav Trubnikov, a professional intelligence officer, who previously served in the KGB and headed the Asian section of Russian political intelligence, was appointed director of the SVR. That is, a man who has made a substantial contribution to the development of Russian relations with Asian countries, including the restoration of cooperation between the Russian and Chinese special services, and with those other states on that continent. Such cooperation is directed both towards strengthening the Russian position in those countries and at creation of the preconditions for future resistance [protivodeistvie] to the West.

In this regard, his statement last year, that Russia can look on the West and NATO as enemies, could be significant.(6) At the 75-year anniversary ceremony of the formation of the VChK-KGB-SVR–triumphantly celebrated in a country which had long before proclaimed itself to be a new "democratic state," Vyacheslav Trubnikov, as befits a Chekist general, said directly that if the North Atlantic alliance cannot find a way to "transform itself and adapt to the post-Cold War era’s new political realities," then, of course, NATO would remain a "hostile" alliance, from the Russian point of view.


1. The Washington Post, January 13, 1995

2. Sovetskaya Rossiya, October 26, 1995

3. On the "Vesti" program on Russian television, November 2, 1995

4. Itar-Tass, December 8, 1995

5. The Washington Times, October 21, 1992

6. The Washington Times, January 11, 1995

Translated by Mark Eckert

Stanislav Lunev is a former colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU).