- Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present
Yevgeny Primakov — Russia’s premier Arab expert since the 1960s and Foreign and Prime Minister under President Boris Yeltsin — was a thorn in the side of US and UN efforts to contain Saddam Husayn from Mikhail Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin. Primakov’s role in Russia’s Middle East policy is uniquely controversial. Secretary of State James Baker referred to him as the “ranking Arabist” in the Soviet leadership around Gorbachev, during the run-up to the First Gulf War. And he did not mean that as a compliment:
[Primakov] was a personal friend of, and apologist for, Saddam Husayn ... he had abetted Saddam’s strategy to weaken the Arab coalition by linking the Kuwaiti crisis with the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.1
President George H.W. Bush and his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft blamed Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze’s resignation in December 1990 on “Primakov’s machinations regarding Saddam.”2 Bush and his team counted [End Page 496] on Shevardnadze to ensure that Gorbachev would not weaken in his commitment to the UN Security Council consensus on unconditional withdrawal. They feared Shevardnadze’s removal would tip the balance toward the “Arabists and traditionalists,” who urged Gorbachev to find a face-saving exit strategy for Saddam. But Saddam failed to oblige.
Richard Butler, the last head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), created in 1991 to monitor fulfillment of Saddam’s disarmament obligations, had even less flattering things to say about Primakov. In his view, Russia’s Middle East policy was perverted by Primakov’s pecuniary interests in Saddam’s regime. Based on what he concluded were reliable intelligence reports, Butler believed Primakov was receiving “personal payoffs” from Saddam.3
Now Foreign Minister [Primakov] was seeking to bury known facts that were essential to the disarming of Saddam, not only for reasons of Russian political interest but also, apparently, for personal gain.4
These charges are serious and deserve a response. But if you were hoping for his side of the story, this book is not the place to look. Part history and part reminiscence, this retrospective account offers little insight into the sources of Soviet and later Russian behavior, slight explanation of his own actions, and no real contribution to our understanding of Kremlin decision making from Gorbachev to Putin.5
This is not to say that Russia and the Arabs, ably and readably translated by Paul Gould, does not command the reader’s attention or interest. As Pravda’s Middle East correspondent beginning in the 1960s, he had the freedom to range far and wide across the region that few other Soviet observers enjoyed. He used this access to develop unparalleled contacts with Arab modernizers, with whom he deeply sympathized. He had entry into the Soviet intelligence community that gave him a ready-made channel to the political establishment. Eventually, he parlayed these assets into a policy role for himself as official and unofficial envoy to the Arab world, and even during the 1970s as secret interlocutor with the Israelis. His support for Gorbachev during the coup attempt of late 1991 and for Yeltsin following the break-up of the Soviet Union lent him political standing and assured him of leadership positions. In the late 1990s, he even campaigned briefly to succeed Yeltsin as Russia’s President.
The areas where Primakov offers new information and a different perspective are, first, the account of the ideological conflicts that beset Soviet Middle East policy in the post-Stalin period and, second, his encounters with the Palestinians and Israelis.
Primakov belonged to the then new generation Soviet “realists” of the 1950s and 1960s who saw in post-colonial Arab nationalism opportunities for the spread of Soviet influence in the Third World. They also saw that Communism — as a social and economic system — had little appeal to...