Gloves off as enigmatic Primakov squares up to West

Policing Saddam

The United States will not have been surprised by Russia's condemnation of its attack on Iraq, but it may well have been startled by the strong language used by Yevgeny Primakov, Moscow's Foreign Minister. The assaults were "a very dangerous situation" which could have "catastrophic consequences", he said.

They could even lead to "anarchy" on the world scene. This does not sound like the Mr Primakov that the Western world has come to know since he left his office as Moscow's chief spy master and took over from Andrei Kozyrev.

In nearly eight months in office, he has established a reputation for coolness and restraint. Now, clearly, the gloves are off.

The Iraqi question is one that Mr Primakov can claim to know well, and with justification. He has been involved with the Middle East for 30 years, as a journalist, an academic, a spy- master, and a diplomat. Such is his knowledge of the territory - he speaks Arabic - that Mikhail Gorbachev dispatched him to Iraq before the Gulf war in an effort to mediate with Saddam Hussein. Russia has big strategic interests at stake in Iraq - including hopes for oil and gas deals - but Mr Primakov also has a personal involvement.

The initial reaction of the West when this enigmatic man took over the Foreign Ministry veered between disappointment and dismay.

His curriculum vitae was that of a man who had manoeuvred cleverly to the top through all the right jobs. He owed his rise to his skill at adjusting to the prevailing political winds, quietly occupying the centre ground under Brezhnev, becoming more liberal under Mr Gorbachev, and more conservative under Boris Yeltsin.

Such is his political flexibility that it was believed he would have remained in office had the Communist, Gennady Zyuganov, beaten Mr Yeltsin in July's election. But Mr Primakov's four years in command of the foreign intelligence apparatus fuelled Western suspicions that he would turn out to be more hostile than his predecessor.

Detecting a nationalist mood in the country as he limbered up for an election campaign, Mr Yeltsin had sacked Mr Kozyrev because many Russians considered him to be too accommodating to the West. Mr Primakov was careful to ensure that the public noticed the change of guard. He talked of Russia restoring its "great-power" status - a buzzword with the nationalists. And he spoke of the Arab world occupying a "considerable place" on Russia's foreign-policy map.

Since then the rumblings of disapproval in the West have died down. There have been no dramatic foreign-policy lurches,although tension remains on several fronts - notably, Nato expansion into East Europe, on which Mr Primakov is showing signs of softening. Yesterday Mr Primakov, after meeting his German counterpart, Klaus Kinkel, in Bonn, insisted Moscow's opposition was unchanged but committed himself to formalising Russia's relationship with Nato. This was the stance of a man with whom the West thinks it can work. His views of the US interference with Iraq are a different matter.

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