In an alternative universe, with just a twist in Russian politics, Yevgeny Primakov might have died, at age 85 late last month, as his country’s president.
Instead, he’ll be known for what the international community remembers as ‘Primakov’s loop’ — his order that a Washington-bound plane across the mid-Atlantic reverse course and turn back to Moscow upon hearing the news that the United States had launched military action against Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999. Though it was ultimately a nationalist gesture that did nothing to stop the eventual NATO-led action in Serbia and the de facto independence of Kosovo, it was the highlight of Primakov’s turbulent nine-month tenure as prime minister.
Russian president Boris Yeltsin turned to Primakov in a moment of crisis, after the collapse of the Russian ruble and an economic collapse that left the once-proud country even more at the mercy of international institutions. Despite narrowly winning reelection over a cast of misfits, nationalists and washed-up communists in 1996, Yeltsin failed in his second term to restore the kind of economic prosperity that capitalism seemed so loftily to promise in the heady days following the Soviet Union’s breakup. Privatization of public industries amounted to a botched firesale of national assets, delivering wealth into the hands of a few lucky and well-placed businessmen who made obscene fortunes in the process.
A former spook who started his career as a writer for Pravda in Cairo in the 1960s, Primakov would become the chief Russian strategic on Middle East affairs across a career that spanned the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, reached its apex under a wary Yeltsin and concluded with a turn as Russia’s chief envoy to Iraq in the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion. Primakov, not surprisingly, vociferously opposed US military action and had nurtured a decades-long relationship with Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein.
Yeltsin appointed Primakov at foreign minister in 1996, where Primakov took a pragmatic role to Russian affairs. Notwithstanding the goodwill that existed between the United States and Russia in the Yeltsin era, you can draw a line from Primakov’s feisty nationalism to the hard-line stand of Putin’s third-term administration today. Primakov, more than anyone else in the 1990s, outlined the case for a multipolar world — where China and, presumably, Russia, would counterbalance the United States. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that John Kerry will ever write the kind of remembrance about current Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov that former US secretary of state Madeline Albright penned about Primakov last week in Foreign Policy.
It was Primakov’s instinctive support for Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević that caused him to order his airplane back to Moscow in March 1999, angered that NATO leaders failed to inform him that their bombing campaign began. Though Yeltsin would ultimately fire Primakov just two months later, ostensibly because of Russia’s continued economic stagnation, many believed that it was because Primakov had become Russia’s most popular politician, far eclipsing Yeltsin with a more hard-edged tone in defending Russia’s national interests — often in opposition to the ‘unipolar moment’ that the United States enjoyed throughout the decade.
Primakov joined forces with Moscow’s longtime mayor Yuri Luzhkov to form a new political party, Fatherland/All Russia (Отечество – Вся Россия), and heading into the 1999 Russian parliamentary elections, Primakov hoped to outpace Yelstin’s hastily assembled Unity (Единство), led by Yeltsin’s new, nearly unknown new prime minister, Putin, appointed only in August 1999 to the job.
The competition between the Primakov-Luzhkov wing and the Yeltsin-Putin wing of the Russian political elite represents the last time that the country witnessed a serious struggle for the Kremlin’s control, and the outcome of that contest shapes Russia and its relations with the world today.
Ultimately, Putin convinced Russian’s new oligarchs, not least of all Boris Berezovsky, that a more lucrative future rested in supporting Putin, not Primakov. At the time, it was a good bet considering Primakov’s rhetoric about corruption. Shortly after consolidating power, however, Putin made it clear that his Russia would be far less tolerant, essentially forcing Berezovsky and others into exile or even, like former Yukos CEO Mikheil Khodorkovsky, into prison.
Moreover, Putin won over the support of the siloviki within Russia’s federal security services (FSB), who were far more influential than the foreign intelligence service (SVR) that Primakov headed from 1991 to 1996.
Though Putin was less well-known, and though Primakov was viewed as an elder statesman of considerable experience, the junior prime minister skillfully deployed the power of the Russian state and the Russian media to undermine Primakov’s image. By the time the December 1999 elections took place, Fatherland polled far behind in third place with around 13% of the vote. The pro-Putin Unity won 23% and the still-powerful Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия), whose leader Gennady Zyuganov once threatened Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996, won 24%.
Shortly thereafter, Yeltsin announced on New Year’s Eve 1999 that he would resign as president, making Putin the acting president prior to the 2000 presidential contest. By the time of that contest in March 2000, Primakov had long pulled out of the race — he had been the odds-on frontrunner for the presidency nine months earlier. Fatherland eventually merged with Unity to become the governing party that still rules the country today, United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) under Putin’s firm control. After a series of missteps, including a botched and uncaring response to a series of natural fires in 2010, the Kremlin forced Luzhkov out as Moscow’s mayor after 18 years, further consolidating its grip on the capital, where Luzhkov — and not Putin — had called the shots.
Notwithstanding the split among Russian elites in 1998-99, there’s more than a hint of ‘Primavokism’ in Putin’s current foreign policy. Long before Putin made the case that Russia would defend the interests of Russian speakers throughout the former Soviet Union, invaded Georgia or annexed Crimea, Primakov’s rise (and the rise of other nationalists like former general Alexander Lebed, who emerged in the 1996 presidential campaign and eventually became a national security adviser to Yeltsin and the elected governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai before his untimely and mysterious death in a 2002 airplane crash) signaled the end of the post-Cold War detente so perfectly captured in the easy charisma between Yeltsin and US president Bill Clinton.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Primakov — who grew up under the penumbra of the Cold War’s atomic threat — would ever have been so loose in his rhetoric as Putin’s threat of using tactical nuclear weapons or causing a confrontation with NATO over the Baltics. As the United States and Russia in 2015 reach ever lower nadirs in their bilateral relations, it’s hard to imagine that Primakov would ever bluff his way into starting World War III, even as Russian, European and American geostrategists alike start to think it might happen under an increasingly isolated and obstinate Putin.