The Knight of Russian Realism

13 february 2017

Remembering Primakov's Foresight and Genius

Dmitry Novikov is a research fellow, Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia.

Resume: The current elites lack Primakov’s ability to find a balance between national and international interests, see a better future, and choose the best way to achieve it. It is this ability that has placed Primakov among the brilliant representatives of realist thought.

There have been few people in top government positions whose moral and political authority did not diminish after their resignation, and still fewer have had the ear of political leaders. Among contemporary political thinkers, such figures include former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the father of the Chinese economic miracle Deng Xiaoping, and the founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. Yevgeny Primakov, of course, belongs to the same group.

Today, Primakov is most frequently remembered as an outstanding statesman and public figure—prime minister, minister, and politician. However, the dimension of his personality and his versatility have led to a paradox: Primakov the statesman has overshadowed Primakov the international affairs expert. Yet these two capacities were inseparable. While paying homage to Primakov’s diplomatic skills, which laid the foundation for Russia’s modern foreign policy, we should also analyze the origins and evolution of his intellectual beliefs on which it was built. This is especially important because Primakov’s academic career can serve as a unique fifty-year chronicle of the formation of Russia’s modern strategic thought.

At the origins of Soviet realism

In retrospect, Primakov’s views on international affairs are usually characterized as realist; he was seen as a staunch pragmatist who defended the primacy of national interests on the world stage. The popular view of him as a major representative of the realist tradition in the Soviet/Russian academic and political establishment is largely based on his background as intelligence chief and, later, as foreign minister and prime minister. Primakov’s work at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and, especially, his symbolic “U-turn over the Atlantic” in March 1999 (this time in the capacity of prime minister) marked the beginning of a profound psychological shift in post-Soviet Russia from a policy of values to a policy of interests and earned him the reputation of a Russian Kissinger. Paradoxically, little has been written about the conceptual basis of “Primakov’s realism,” which formed much earlier—in the 1970s (in the peculiar conditions of the formal domination of Marxist-Leninist ideology and scientific communism). This gap leads to a superficial and sometimes even distorted understanding of the phenomenon of Primakov as a domestic affairs expert and the Soviet/Russian school of international studies, which was created through his involvement. The strategic thinking of contemporary Russia is based on the intellectual legacy of this school.

Primakov’s philosophy of foreign policy has been greatly mythologized, partly due to his active involvement in the political turmoil of the 1990s. Critics, especially in the West, often reduce it to subtle anti-Americanism (if not revanchism) intended to meet the demands of a portion of Russia’s academic and political elites that is not ready psychologically to accept a “unipolar world.” However, this interpretation is not accurate. Primakov himself repeatedly said that “Russia is far from asserting its importance in world affairs through confrontation with anyone.” He always emphasized the importance of open and honest discussions both in international and domestic politics. Primakov said that starting a “fight for the sake of a fight,” without clearly defined strategic objectives, was the worst manifestation of political shortsightedness.

His pragmatism in assessing Russia’s capabilities and interests and desire to assert them through dialogue earned him respect and personal sympathy from Western partners. Madeleine Albright described Primakov as “a staunch defender of his country’s interests” and “a pragmatic diplomat who saw new opportunities for Russia to partner with the West after the end of the Cold War.” Henry Kissinger did not hold back his praise of Primakov either, calling him “a true Russian patriot, who defended the interests of his country with courage, vigor, and wisdom, but who was also creative in seeking ways to improve relations with other countries, including most importantly the United States.” It is hard to find greater recognition than the high accolades from Western policymakers who had warm and friendly relationships with Primakov, despite differences between them.

By contrast, many Russian analysts portray Primakov and other old-time international affairs experts who were the backbone of the Soviet/Russian foreign-policy expert community as Marxist-type statists who adapted the narrow (by today’s standards) worldview and methodology of Soviet academic science to the new realities. The criticism of Primakov as a representative of the old nomenklatura (with the inevitable mention of its negative qualities, especially inertia and the clinging to the past) has never been valid in either academic or political terms. For example, the start of his successful and salutary-for-Russia premiership was sometimes portrayed as a communist restoration.

Throughout his academic career, Primakov sought to de-dogmatize science. In his memoirs, he wrote: “We received good Marxist training as postgraduate students at Moscow State University. Later, many of us, myself included, while not breaking up with Marxism, began to depart from the view of it as the only true science, almost a religion.” At the same time, Primakov never dissociated himself from the Soviet academic school or abandon the tradition in which he worked for decades. “We were well versed in theory and had every reason to believe that one should not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he wrote. “Of course, Marxist postulates cannot be used outside time or space, but this conclusion does not apply to the Marxist methodology which is of historical value.”

Especially in the description of the Middle East, a subtle Marxist touch was an integral part of Primakov’s ironic style, which changed little since the early 1970s. In one of his last books, Confidential: The Middle East Onstage and Backstage, he unceremoniously called Gamal Abdel Nasser and other leaders of Middle Eastern decolonization “petty-bourgeois revolutionaries” (although he wrote that in 2012 when the Soviet academic tradition was already history) and thoroughly delved into the dialectics of the notions of “Arab and Islamic socialism,” familiar and important to Soviet experts but a Chinese puzzle to the present generation. However, in the same book, when analyzing the sources of social and political transformations in the region, Primakov overthrew Soviet dogmas. He wrote that “the process of creating the public sector began as a measure against foreign influence and attempts by external forces to retain control, in a new form, over states that had freed themselves from colonial dependence.” The economic basis and the political superstructure (in this case the international system) thus change places in Primakov’s analysis, and this is one of the most important traits of the development of Soviet realists: for them, the international context gradually supplanted economic determinism and Lenin’s postulate that “foreign policy is the continuation of domestic policy;” and external impulses began to be viewed as equally or even more important for the behavior of actors.

This transformation of international science was commonplace for both superpowers. Established by Edward Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Kenneth Thompson, the school of classical realism (which later evolved into more refined structural realism) was directed against the idealistic approach that dominated Western international relations in the interwar period, and not least against American messianism, thus helping make U.S. foreign policy more objective. In both the Soviet Union and the United States, the de-idealization of international relations was a factor of existential importance for stabilizing the postwar world. In the Soviet Union, this process, driven by the extreme circumstances of the Cold War and the intellectual influence of U.S. strategic concepts, was more closed and proceeded with difficulty. The science of Soviet international relations developed in conditions of strong ideological pressure and almost scholastic discussions of various interpretations of Marxist-Leninist teachings. In this respect, the creation of an analytically valid expert system was one of the main achievements of Primakov, his teachers, followers, and colleagues.

The struggle against dogmatism, typical of the Soviet international relations science, was a major factor in Primakov’s formation as an international affairs expert. He began his career as an orientalist-economist (his PhD thesis, which he defended in 1960, was devoted to the operation of foreign oil companies on the Arabian Peninsula). Later, he shifted the focus of his interests to international politics because he believed that a purely economic interpretation was not enough to explain international processes in the Middle East. This change in attitude could be due to his “fieldwork” as a Pravda correspondent in the Middle East. For many years, he lived in Cairo and traveled extensively across the region, meeting with key figures of regional processes and acquainting himself with their views.

In his 1969 doctoral dissertation titled “The Social and Economic Development of Egypt” and written after he had experienced Middle Eastern events firsthand for many years, Primakov tried to expand the boundaries of analyzing regional processes set by scientific communism through a comprehensive reassessment of the domestic and foreign policies of the Nasser regime in Egypt (which could also apply to other similar post-colonial regimes in Arab countries). What theorists of the 1950s had defined as Arab socialism, Primakov proposed viewing as a “category of Arab nationalism,” because, he argued, Egypt, Syria, and several other Arab countries were “at the stage of pre-socialist development.” Hidden behind seemingly dogmatic sophistry was a deep conceptual meaning, which allowed extending the boundaries of political analysis.

In his memoirs, Primakov modestly specified: “I was not among the authors of this theory, although I have never repudiated it.” Yet he played a major role in promoting this approach as a starting point for analyzing international situations in the Middle East and beyond. This approach made it possible to extend methodological boundaries for forecasting the behavior of countries and developing a realist view of the balancing of states between the two military-political blocs. One such example Primakov described was “Cairo’s Cold War-era policy of balancing between the ‘free world’ and the ‘socialist camp’ with a view to preserving its independence.” Another belief that is now history but was widespread in the Soviet expert and political communities in the 1950s was that antagonisms were inevitable (or at least possible) among major capitalist countries in the struggle for goods and capital markets in the Middle East and for influence over newly independent countries. The structural nature of the Cold War confrontation caused Soviet international affairs experts to describe the bipolar standoff in categories close to structural realism. “For all the differences among them, the United States, Britain, and France adopted a common policy towards the Arab world based on a shared desire to involve sovereign Arab countries into military blocs led by the West,” Primakov wrote after the conclusion of the Camp David agreement. “This desire was fueled by fears that some independent Arab countries could join the Soviet camp.”

At the same time, while criticizing the U.S. policy of the 1980s, which, “to an even greater degree than before, was based on a desire to ‘universalize’ the struggle against the Soviet Union by shifting it from the global to the regional level,” Primakov delicately proposed rethinking Soviet foreign policy, employing realist arguments. “A policy can produce stable results only if it is built on realities: on a correct understanding of the balance of power, its dynamics, and objective needs and objective interests of various societies,” he wrote in 1985, on the eve of radical changes in the Soviet Union, which also entailed the inevitable revamping of its foreign policy.

Of course, in the years of bipolar confrontation, the United States was not alone in ideologizing its approaches to global and regional international problems and, above all, relations with its sparring partner.

Primakov and his colleagues at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) and other institutes developed an objective view of the political reality that was free of ideological blinders. This viewpoint helped in working out a situation analysis method that became one of the most effective tools for analyzing international challenges. Combining a deep intelligence, erudition, and great charm, Primakov was a true master of situation analysis, in which there were no taboo subjects, nor (especially in the second half of the 1980s) major methodological or conceptual restrictions. “We predicted the bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. during the Vietnam War four months in advance; after Nasser’s death [we predicted] Sadat’s turn towards the West and departure from close relations with the Soviet Union; and finally, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, [we predicted] the inevitability of war between that country and Iraq, which began ten months after we held the situation analysis,” Primakov wrote in his memoirs. For this know-how in Soviet expert analysis Primakov was awarded the USSR State Prize (1980).

In the 1970s-early 1980s, largely due to Soviet expert analysis of international affairs in which Primakov was already playing a central role, the country’s foreign policy became more de-idealized and targeted at protecting its objective vital interests. Paradoxically, in the late 1980s, when ideological frameworks were finally discarded, the leaders of perestroika and, later, the new Russian elites were caught in the grip of a new mythology that emerged from a worldview that was opposite from that of the Cold War era. According to this viewpoint, Russia was to become part of the civilizational and strategic West as a junior partner. Unjustified ambitions gave way to unjustified concessions. In those years of Russia’s fundamental transformation, Primakov, now a statesman, again had to do what he had been doing throughout his academic career; namely fight for a pragmatic foreign policy and move it from the sphere of illusions to the sphere of the objective. However, the concept of the new foreign policy proposed by Primakov in the second half of the 1990s proved to be much more sophisticated than the dry realism that was the hallmark of his situation analysis. This factor shows that Primakov’s political philosophy was much more complicated and holistic, and characterized him as an outstanding thinker and international affairs expert.


Despite the outward similarity, “Primakov’s realism” was not fully identical to classical realism, nor to its later versions. For Primakov, the de-idealization of the Soviet/Russian foreign policy—a trait that brought Soviet realists closer to their Western counterparts—never served as an invitation to the static and unfriendly world of Thucydides and Morgenthau. The objectivization of foreign policy analysis did not mean the demoralization of foreign policy for him. “Denigrating and even disdaining human values—we already did that when we asserted that the class approach was above all,” Primakov wrote in one of his last books, Thoughts Aloud. In this desire to strike a balance between national interests and values, he resembled Henry Kissinger, an outstanding representative of American realism.

The founder of classical realism Hans Morgenthau once described Kissinger as “an Odysseus-like polytropos;” that is, “of many appearances,” and pointed out his complex personality and seeming inconsistency of his political philosophy. This description may well be applied to Primakov. This natural comparison between Primakov and the patriarch of American Realpolitik is not accidental, as these two outstanding international affairs experts played similar historical roles. In a way, both Primakov and Kissinger performed the functions of crisis managers for the foreign policies of their respective countries in a time of special need.

As the theory and practice of U.S. diplomacy in the 1970s, “Kissingerism” played a significant role in overcoming the structural crisis that gripped the American superpower at the time. It helped lead the United States out of the quagmire of Vietnam and build a new strategic link with China—amid détente in relations with the Soviet Union. Primakov and his colleagues played a similar role during Russia’s major transformation, accompanied by a systemic crisis that affected, among other areas, foreign policy.

In a way, this similarity confirms the formula of Kenneth Waltz, who argued that all countries are similar and differ only in capabilities. Despite the difference between the social and ideological systems they represented, both Primakov and Kissinger proposed objective responses by their countries to similar structural challenges. The main point in their political programs was the renunciation of messianic and idealized approaches in favor of relations based on the hierarchy of interests, which created a solid ground for dialogue. Kissinger wrote that if one state considered internal views of justice as a threat to its existence, a diplomatic dialogue was impossible. This problem was particularly serious in the second half of the 20th century when ideological confrontations threw sparks all over the world. Efforts to resolve this problem were the leitmotif of the Kissingerian diplomacy of the 1970s. At the end of the 20th century, when the central value conflict seemed to have been resolved, Primakov shaped a new foreign-policy philosophy for post-Soviet Russia based largely on the same principles.

Yet it was a close link between idealism and realism that was the most important trait that united these two schools and personalities. Neither Primakov nor Kissinger ever gave up the principle of moral universalism as a beacon of politics. “For all the importance of national, including political, cultures, they cannot and do not replace far-from-amorphous human values ??and interests,” Primakov wrote in Thoughts Aloud. The ideals of American democracy, whose protection was for Kissinger largely identical to the protection of national interests, were also a universal value basis. Kissinger did not accept the utilitarian approach advanced by some advocates of the modernization theory, who argued that the viability of a model depended on its economic efficiency and, therefore, the West should focus only on its economic superiority over the socialist bloc. “Unless we are able to make the concepts of freedom and respect for human dignity meaningful to the new nations,” he wrote in his book The Necessity for Choice, “the much-vaunted economic competition between us and Communism (…) will be without meaning.”

At the same time, elements of universalism in the views of Primakov and Kissinger differed from the Wilsonian and Marxist idealism, which both thinkers consistently rejected. The fundamental objective of practical realists like Kissinger and Primakov was to maintain international peace, because the price of an international conflict in the nuclear age was particularly high. In one of his early books, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (published in 1959, just three years before the Cuban missile crisis), Kissinger wrote that maintaining peace naturally was the central problem in a century that had produced two world wars, followed by a Cold War, but, paradoxically, all hope was now pinned on the deadliest weapon in human history.

For Primakov, the military-strategic dimension of relations between the two countries and the related issue of their survival served as the starting point for analysis and as a solid foundation for thoughts on the present and future of the international system. “With the advent of nuclear weapons, capable of destroying not only the two superpowers but the rest of the world, peaceful coexistence began to be viewed as a more or less constant category,” Primakov noted. “At the same time, it was repeatedly said that this did not mean an end to confrontation and that the ideological struggle should continue unabated. This vision of relations with the West (...) gave rise to permanent instability in the world. It was a vicious circle in which the arms race spiraled.”

Yet there was a fundamental difference between the realism of Primakov and that of Kissinger; namely, their visions of ways to overcome the Cold War confrontation. For Kissinger, the only acceptable way out of the bipolarity was a victory for the Western camp. His moral universalism was geographically linked to the United States, which made it possible for him to struggle for national interests without betraying values.

For Primakov, the answer to the same question was never as evident. As one of the most resolute and proficient defenders of national interests, Primakov thought in terms of security and the well-being of the entire global system. Perhaps this attitude was prompted by the Marxist-Leninist tradition which shaped, in one way or another, the mindset of the Soviet and new Russian intellectual elites. “The unity of the world was interpreted as part of the principle of the unity and struggle of opposites,” Primakov wrote, adding that, thanks to nuclear deterrence, “emphasis for the first time began to be put on the first part of this formula, while the second part was given a limited interpretation, which ruled out a nuclear conflict. That was already a great achievement, but it seems that the conclusion about the unity of the world would have looked more tenable, more organic, and more consistent if it had been based on the recognition of the convergence theory.”

The convergence theory occupied an important place in Primakov’s views on the prospects for overcoming the confrontation between the two opposing socio-political blocs, and on stabilizing the international system after the era of bipolarity ended. Primakov viewed the possibility of achieving unity of the opposites in the international system from two perspectives: “from the point of view of technological revolution, which has swept the whole world to one degree or another, and human values ??and interests expressed in everyone’s desire to avoid a thermonuclear war.” The focus on combining the idealistic belief in the possibility of converging opposing parties through technological and social progress with a pragmatic calculation about the power of nuclear deterrence proved to be largely correct. However, the exit from the Cold War, the way it happened, was defective: the logic of convergence was replaced by a logic of absorption already in the 1990s. The theory and policy of Primakov’s diplomacy were aimed at correcting this defect.

“The Primakov doctrine”

Understanding the complex of ideas now known as the “Primakov Doctrine” is impossible without knowing that Primakov’s foreign-policy philosophy was based on a balance between realism in the analysis of current international problems and cautious idealism in forming an image of the future. An analysis of Primakov’s multivector policy from only one approach may lead to a distorted understanding of his diplomacy in the 1990s and Russia’s subsequent foreign policy, which is largely based on Primakov’s vision.

The criticism of “unipolarity,” pivotal to Primakov's entire foreign policy concept and often mistaken for ill-concealed anti-Americanism, was directed at the same problems against which Kissinger fought—subjective assessments of international reality and their asymmetric effects. Primakov pointed out the vulnerability and ideological bias of the notion of “unipolarity,” which prevailed in descriptions of the international system in the 1990s and 2000s. Primakov saw the imbalance in U.S.-Russian relations and obvious unwillingness of Washington to reckon with Moscow, although the latter continued to bear the burden of nuclear deterrence and in many ways was a guarantor of strategic stability, as obvious signs of a disease in the post-Cold War world order: “Relying on the idea of ??asymmetry in the world after the end of the Cold War, in other words, on a false conclusion about a U.S. victory and a Soviet defeat in it, Washington found that equality between the United States and Russia in world affairs was unjustified.” Perhaps the lack of figures like Kissinger in the West, who would be ready to build a new world on the same principles, is one of the factors behind many current problems. “Henry Kissinger is boundlessly loyal to the idea of ??the United States’ supremacy in the world (...); however, this does not equal his ignoring the existence of other centers of power,” Primakov wrote.

From Primakov’s point of view, “unipolarity” was always a chimera that distorted a much more complex picture of the world order. “The U.S. leadership characterizes the present multipolar system, but it does not recognize a unipolar world order equally,” he wrote in one of his later books. As a result of the natural evolution of the international system, “the conclusion about a unipolar world order has begun to be eroded by an increasingly tangible unevenness in the development of various countries.” The world of a victorious West proved to be a world of many actors beyond control, which, according to Primakov, was the main defect of the world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War. Whereas in the 1980s international stability could be achieved through reciprocal moves by two countries of equal weight, the world of the 1990s and especially the 2000s was a combination of many poorly balanced elements moving in different directions.

Nevertheless, Primakov believed that it was possible to stabilize the international system in this increasingly complex and less stable world. Even though the situation developed differently than what had been expected in the 1980s, the convergence and increased interdependence of the global system helped to defuse international conflicts. Describing the positive effects of globalization, Primakov wrote that “while integration processes at the interstate level help to increase the number of centers in the contemporary world, making it multipolar, the transnationalization of business attaches these centers to each other.” From this he concludes that “poles of the contemporary world are interdependent not only due to the breakthrough development of high-tech production, but also new forms of industrial relations. In these conditions, the emerging multipolarity does not have a core of discord and confrontation.”

Primakov envisioned a special role for Russia in these processes—as one of the pillars of the strategic deterrence system and a country with an enormous potential for economic and technological development, which could become a stabilizer of the international system and, at the same time, one of the flagships of its further development. He insisted, however, that “modernization aimed at taking Russia to a new level where productive forces and achievements of social development would be in keeping with the present technological paradigm, does not mean that our country should ‘dissolve’ in the Western world, which on the whole has achieved this paradigm.” This emphasis on multivector development, which critics often mistake for anti-Americanism or, in a broader sense, anti-Westernism, in fact, reflects the objective needs of Russia for diversified ties, and of the world for a more solid polycentric order. It is indicative that Primakov did not view the choice of geopolitically weaker but technological Europe within the EU framework, still advocated by many, as a panacea. “There is a close yet slightly different ideology of choosing the European Union as the only ally in the sphere of modernization, which is opposed to all other partners, including China. I believe that a multivector policy would be much more fruitful for the modernization of Russia.”

Primakov was one of the first to point out the need for a Russian turn towards the East. Despite ideological and political differences between Moscow and Beijing, prerequisites for such a U-turn ripened strategically back in the 1980s, when the contours of the present global redistribution of power were just emerging. Defending the need to normalize relations with China and, simultaneously, consistently develop relations with other major Asian countries, Primakov pointed out that “the strength of Russia’s foreign policy (...) is in developing relations with as many countries as possible, especially with Asian countries. With this configuration, it will be easier for us to deal with the West, as well.” At the same time, he warned that any “turn” towards the East would be futile without the radical modernization of Siberia and the Russian Far East. “There was no doubt then, nor there is any now, that the future of Russia largely depends on whether we can develop this huge and rich, but extremely sparsely populated part of our country.”

The theory and policy of Primakov in the Soviet and Russian periods were aimed at overcoming conflicts in the international system and building a solid foundation for long-term cooperation. “Trust and cooperation are the two things that can ensure the normal development of Russian-American relations in the interests of not only the two countries, but also the whole world,” he wrote in 2005. He believed that the only alternative to cooperation was chaos in world politics and an explosive growth of uncontrolled challenges, such as international terrorism and the erosion of the global security system, including the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Now, in the absence of real partnership between Russia and the U.S. and other centers of power, much of this has become a reality. The current elites lack Primakov’s ability to find a balance between national and international interests, discover common ground, see a better future, and choose the best way to achieve it. It is this ability that has placed Primakov among the brilliant representatives of realist thought and great diplomats of our time.

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