Pay No Attention to Russia's Man Behind the Curtain

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Call it Sovietology, if you will, but hey, that's where Vladimir Putin learned his stuff. And so the barely noticed presence of former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov in President Putin's entourage in Europe this week may speak volumes about the new leader's intentions.

And there's little cause for comfort in all this for the White House. Washington has already been served notice that Putin is no slouch, but Primakov's obviously influential presence in his court suggests that the new president may be guided by Russia's best coach in the art of competing with Washington from a position of weakness.

Putin's second swing through Europe in as many weeks, for example, forms part of an effort to outflank Washington in the showdown over missile defense. Where Boris Yeltsin may have contented himself to growl and grumble over a U.S. military initiative deemed inimical to Russian interests, Putin is fighting back vigorously and raising a few eyebrows in Washington. Indeed, he's managed to turn some key European NATO members against Washington's proposed National Missile Defense system by convincing them it could spark a dangerous new arms race; now he plans to head for North Korea next month, partly to coax concessions out of the "rogue state" whose missile capability is Exhibit A in Washington's case for going ahead. Not content to simply say "nyet," Putin's gone a step further by suggesting joint Russian-U.S. deployment of an alternative missile defense that would attack rogue missiles immediately after takeoff, and destroy them in the "boost phase" when they're easier targets. How serious Putin may or may not be about the system remains to be seen, but the point is he's playing Washington at its own game — and scoring points.

The geopolitical black arts are precisely where Primakov comes in. Although the former foreign minister and prime minister was sidelined by Yeltsin in the runup to Putin's accession and had been the presidential candidate of a rival grouping, Putin evidently bears no grudge. Indeed, they're cut from the same cloth — Primakov is a former KGB chief and Putin headed up its successor organization, the FSB. Putin underlined the significance of that connection soon after taking power, at a highly symbolic gathering at a remote dacha. In the presence of senior intelligence officers, Putin presented Primakov with a hunting rifle — a traditional gesture of respect in the Soviet-era power structure.

The new president has good reason to covet the advice of a man whose consummate skill as foreign minister — whether dealing with the Gulf crisis or the enlargement of NATO — was playing a poor hand to maximum advantage. Although the current foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, is a firm, erudite and self-assured Primakov protégé, he doesn't have his tutor's strategic vision and skill, his experience or his Rolodex. Primakov's presence, both on Putin's European tour and at the funeral of Syrian president Hafez Assad, suggests the president is eager to make use of his erstwhile rival's expertise in order to engage the U.S. in a diplomatic battle for influence in theaters as diverse as Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

But the septuagenarian Primakov offers a lot more than simply a few wily moves, a Kissingeresque eye for the bigger picture in the "great game" of geopolitics and an enviable respect and gravitas in Western corridors of power. He has a vision — a doctrine, if you like — which holds that despite its current weakness, Russia must use all means at its disposal to expand its sphere of influence, using its wits, strengths and historical relationships to contest U.S. global influence. As foreign minister, Primakov operated within the limits set by an unpopular regime led by an enfeebled president, but Moscow analysts believe that what may now be emerging is a combination of the Primakov doctrine with Putin's energy and muscle.

The crackdown on contrary voices at home, exemplified by the arrest this week of anti-Kremlin media mogul — and erstwhile Primakov backer — Vladimir Gusinsky has been widely interpreted as a signal that domestic dissent will not be tolerated by the Kremlin's new leadership. But while Western leaders may have expected a more authoritarian regime from Putin in the wake of his ruthless handling of Chechnya and his staring down of Western criticism of same, his vigorous foreign-policy offensive against Washington has caught them off guard. Not only has Putin refused to accede to U.S. demands to renegotiate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, he's actually gone on the offensive seeking European support for his own alternative and working hard — and with considerable effect — to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies.

In other words, unlike Boris Yeltsin, President Putin's going to be no pushover. And that's a lesson both Bill Clinton and his successor may learn the hard way — while, thousands of miles away, an aging former KGB chief smirks cryptically.