Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 167

In a series of statements–heard most likely with some relief in Washington and elsewhere–newly named Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov told lawmakers on September 11 that he would not take Russia back on the path toward “confrontation” with the West. The former Russian foreign minister, whose remarks came prior to the Duma vote that approved him, was responding to several provocative questions from the leader of Russia’s ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Primakov said that international confrontation was “not in Russia’s interests and… not in the interests of the Russian people.”

The one-time Russian spy-master also spoke forcefully in favor START II ratification, saying that the treaty does not undermine Russia’s security and that he would urge lawmakers to back it. In addition, Primakov refused to be goaded into a denunciation of NATO enlargement. Although he has often harshly criticized the Western alliance for its expansion plans, Primakov on this occasion chose instead simply to defend the Kremlin’s decision to sign the Russia-NATO Founding Act (Russia TV, September 11). That cooperative agreement with NATO, signed in May of last year, has been one of the few policies on which nationalists in Russia’s parliament have taken issue with Primakov’s performance as foreign minister.

In answer to a separate question about Russia’s ongoing negotiations with Japan over control of the Kuril Islands, Primakov again chose his words carefully. The Russian prime minister said that foreign policy is not “all about just two colors–black and white” while assuring deputies that the Russian government would seek a decision “which does not harm our sovereignty” (Russia TV, September 11).

Russia is currently involved in delicate negotiations with Japan that center on the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. A number of political leaders in Moscow and in the regions have spoken out strongly against any territorial concessions to Tokyo. But Primakov’s relatively moderate remarks on the territorial issue–like those on NATO enlargement and START II–appeared to reflect, at least in part, an awareness that Western support remains crucial to Moscow during its current troubles. If so, that would reflect once again the “pragmatism” so often attributed to Primakov’s conduct of foreign policy–and seen as the reason for his long survival as a leading political figure as well. It is that pragmatism that has heretofore allowed him to maintain relatively cooperative relations with the West while engineering a foreign policy that reasserted Russian interests around the globe.