Years ago, I got into contact with Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s former prime minister, foreign minister and director of the Foreign Intelligence Service. It was agreed that we would meet in Malta.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “Primakov is my teacher. He has made an invaluable contribution to formulating the fundamentals of Russia’s foreign policy.” President Vladimir Putin said, “Primakov was a statesman who has left an enormous legacy. I’ve always listened to his views regarding domestic and foreign policy.”
Primakov was the East’s counterpart to Henry Kissinger in the West. The two have been described as the "wise men" on US-Russian relations. Kissinger was trying to forge “geo-political engineering” of the world from a Washington perspective, while Primakov raised the Russia-India-China triangle, which was the prototype of the BRICS association that aimed to forge the world according to a Moscow outlook.
I met with Primakov in a hotel in the north of Malta overlooking the Mediterranean. Dr Taha Abdel-Alim and Ambassador Mohamed Shaker – who are friends of Primakov – helped convince him to record the meeting for TV. The meeting took one hour. The discussion with Primakov was extended more than once during a trip through Malta, including a walking tour in the Arab quarter in Mdina.
I asked Primakov about former Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat. He said: “Nasser was a romanticist. As for Sadat, he refused Colonel General [Saad] El-Shazly’s military vision in fear of changing the rules of the game. I said [to Sadat] that I didn’t understand what he meant by changing the rules of the game. When I met Sadat afterwards and asked him: ‘What do you mean by changing the rules of the game?’ he looked at me then shifted the direction of the conversation.”
I said to Primakov that Sadat was aware of the limits of power and saw that there was limitless US support for Israel and limited support from the Soviet Union for Egypt. After he evaluated the limits of support and the limits of power, he opted for the political route instead of the force of arms. I believe this was what Sadat meant by saying “changing the rules of the game.” Primakov listened until the end, and then said, “An unconvincing analysis.”
I said to Primakov: “An example of the support that didn’t materialise was what Shams Badran said on his return to Egypt after meeting Soviet Minister of Defence Andrei Grechko: ‘The Soviet Union is with us. The Soviet fleet will flatten the American fleet’.”
Primakov answered, “Nobody administers a war by relying on outside support. . . The words of the Soviet defence minister to Shams Badran were a form of courtesy.
I was totally astounded when I heard this reply. I began to talk about Iraq. I said to Primakov, “You were a friend of Saddam Hussein and you were the last person he met with before the invasion. In your opinion, why didn’t he opt for peace since he wasn’t quite good at war?” Primakov said, in agreement, “I add to your questions: Why didn’t Saddam Hussein order the Republican Guard – which he threatened many a time to use – to engage in the fighting? Why didn’t Saddam blow up the bridges to prevent the enemy’s advance? He made the invasion of the country so easy for any army.”
Then Primakov surprised me by saying, “There were close relations between Saddam and America and they had big secrets between them. Saddam didn’t expect at all that America would turn against him; invading, arresting and executing him. Perhaps America suggested that he invade Kuwait, maybe he thought that he could rely on America. However, America achieved its own objectives, not his. Then it took the initiative and executed him to silence him and bury his secrets with him forever. Saddam thought that Kuwait would be given to Iraq, but what happened is that Iraq was given to Iran.”
The talk settled on political philosophy. I said to Primakov: “Reformation in light of ideology became impossible. For the success of reformation means the downfall of ideology and the end of the experience. Your attempt to reform in the Soviet Union led to the failure of reformation and the collapse of the state.”
Primakov’s assessment was different. He said, “The Soviet Union’s collapse took place for objective reasons. China is communist and is ruled by the Communist Party, and it has made huge reformation and has become a leading power in the world today. The ideology didn’t end and the state didn’t collapse. The main reason for our defeat in the Soviet Union wasn’t the ideology, it was the economy.”
Primakov was one of the builders of contemporary Russia. Boris Yeltsin was the person who destroyed the Soviet Union and went on to destroy Russia. The currency fell, banks went bankrupt and citizens’ deposits evaporated. There was nothing in Russia except poverty and failure. Suicide cases increased and heart disease became prevalent.
Then came Vladimir Putin from the school of Primakov. Moscow succeeded in making a comeback. It was one of the biggest “hope restoration” operations in the modern age. In the Arab world, extremists damaged civilisation and crippled history. In Russia, figures like Primakov succeeded in destroying chaos and restoring the empire.