Books Yevgeny Primakov traversed the Middle East for decades as a reporter, KGB officer and diplomat. Michelle Risley reads his account of the chaotic struggle between the superpowers.
Yevgeny Primakov traversed the Middle East for decades as a reporter, KGB officer and diplomat. Michelle Risley reads his account of the chaotic struggle between the superpowers. Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present Yevgeny Primakov Basic Books Dh105 Colonialism's collapse in the aftermath of the Second World War left Arab countries exalted by their new-found independence but also in need of financial and military assistance. The creation of a Jewish state in Israel in 1948 intensified pan-Arab solidarity, but it also made the support of a powerful ally all the more important. Reluctant to turn to their former colonisers for aid, Arab countries initially sought the help of both the Soviet Union and the United States. With the October 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, when Britain, France and Israel launched a failed military intervention in Egypt meant to subordinate it, the potential for intervention from the former colonial powers came essentially to an end as the threat from Israel increased.
This left the terrain open for the two emerging superpowers, divided by opposing ideologies. The United States had withdrawn a promised loan for the construction of the Aswan Dam in July to signal its disapproval over Egypt's increasingly closer ties to the Soviet Union, Gamel Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, to wide acclaim, and Soviet military support for Egypt continued to grow. In 1957, the United States - wrongly convinced that the oil-rich Middle East was the next Soviet target - declared the region a Cold War battle zone with the announcement of the Eisenhower doctrine, asserting America's responsibility to assist any Middle Eastern country threatened by Communist aggression. As ties between America and Israel grew stronger, particularly after the 1967 war, the battle lines of the Cold War in the Middle East took shape: pitting the Americans and their Israeli client against the Soviets and their Arab allies. For decades, the region remained one of the tensest battlegrounds in the Cold War - a theatre for fierce competition between superpowers anxious to avoid direct conflict but unwilling to be defeated by proxy.
The former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov was on the front lines of this conflict for more than 40 years as one of the Soviet Union's leading Arabists. His new book, Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present, is a kind of memoir of his vast experiences in the region, an uneven mix of history, anecdote, gossip and insight gleaned from his innumerable meetings with Arab leaders as a journalist, intelligence officer and diplomat. He contends that "neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had any decisive means to control the course of events; both found themselves at the mercy of an escalating crisis in the region". While neither wanted to engage in conflict or lose ground, they "more than once they intervened to restrain their client states".
This proved a tenuous balance. Unlike in Europe or Asia, where the battle between the superpowers was often framed in starkly ideological terms, they prioritised pragmatic concerns in establishing alliances in the Middle East, without much attention to the "socialist" or "capitalist" orientation of their new allies. Desire to preserve their power bases and to gain advantage led both to provide regional "clients" with weaponry and support in order to maintain their allegiance. The balance became more fragile as Arab unity was weakened by conflicts of interest between its leaders, which led them to seek out and, if necessary, switch superpower alliances.
In Primakov's account, Egypt emerges as the Arab country most adept at exploiting the superpowers' need for regional alliances to achieve its own goals. For the first stretch of the Cold War in the region, Nasser's ambitions aligned with the Soviet Union's vision: "a coalition of Arabs in a pro-independence struggle against Western attempts to unseat the new revolutionary regimes". The US, on the other hand, wanted to undermine these regimes, with the help of regional allies including Lebanon and Jordan.
For Nasser, defeating Israel was key to establishing himself as the leader of the Arab world. In the spring of 1967, Soviet and Egyptian intelligence - incorrectly - warned that Israel planned to launch a guerrilla attack on Syria. Nasser, backed by Soviet tanks and planes, first demanded that the United Nations withdraw its peacekeeping troops from the Sinai Peninsula, which they had occupied since the 1956 Suez crisis. He then pulled what was apparently intended as a bluff: on May 22, he closed the Straits of Tiran, blocking access to Israel's only port on the Red Sea. This backfired spectacularly. Israel took Nasser's provocation as an invitation to war, preemptively attacked both Syria and Egypt on June 5, and in a week captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, and the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt and Syria were humiliated and the Soviet Union's credibility severely undermined.
In 1972, a year after Nasser's death, his successor Anwar Sadat took the first major step to shift Egypt from the Soviet camp into the American one - expelling some 20,000 Soviet military advisers. Détente talks between Nixon and Brezhnev had confirmed Sadat's suspicions that the Soviet Union was pursuing its own aims to Egypt's detriment. (Although Primakov doesn't relate if Egypt was among them, many Soviet clients in the early 1970s also expressed dissatisfaction with their patron's "limited aid".) Sadat also viewed hostilities with Israel as a block on potential revenue sources that could be used to address domestic problems. He therefore believed that the superpowers' intervention was necessary to orchestrate the settlement he desired with Israel. In early October 1973, Egypt, along with Syria, launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur. Egypt expected the conflict would end once its limited goals had been secured, but Israel persisted. (Primakov speculates, cryptically and unconvincingly, that Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was aware of Sadat's plans, and duped him into thinking that he had US support.) To preserve face, the superpowers struggled to keep their clients armed while frantically trying to arrange an end to the fighting. After the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution authorising a ceasefire, the superpowers sought to avoid direct engagement at all costs.
A confluence of factors led to the next major development in Arab-Israeli relations: the signing of an Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979, encouraged by the Carter administration. This was Carter's attempt to move away from Kissinger's strategy of shuttle diplomacy, first developed to end the Yom Kippur War, and towards a more multilateral approach. His aim now was to foster Egyptian-Israeli relations - and to shut the Soviet Union out of the process. Sadat welcomed further accommodation with Israel so that he could focus his attentions domestically, while Menachim Begin, the right-wing Israeli prime minister elected in 1977, was eager to sign a separate peace with Egypt. This separate agreement, Primakov believes, came at the Palestinians' and Syrians' expense (It certainly alienated Egypt from the Arab world.) His preference was for a sensible sounding "step-by-step approach to a comprehensive peace settlement", which, unlike a separate agreement, would have prevented Israel from meeting its security goals without "having to give up anything substantial itself". What our narrator declines to shed light on is why the Soviet Union wasn't involved in the process. Perhaps, as others have speculated, it was because its leadership prioritised the process of détente, a trend that continued as internal problems, which would eventually result in the collapse of the Soviet Union, continued to intensify, and the Soviet desire for accommodation with the United States became more acute.
Omissions such as this, as well as Primakov's failure to acknowledge other unexplored opportunities for manoeuvre in Soviet foreign policy, undermine his case that both superpowers were without recourse in the region. It was America's canny exploitation of changes in the political landscape in the region, and its willingness to work with Egypt as well as Israel that led to its diplomatic (if not political) successes in the 1970s. Primakov served as the Soviet representative sent to conduct secret talks with Israeli leaders between 1971 and 1977, prompted by Soviet fears of losing influence. They were held in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, which the Soviet Union had severed in 1967. He attributes their failure to Israeli intransigence over security concerns, while "the Soviet Union sought all possible means to try to bring about a compromise Middle East peace deal". Yet Primakov apparently rebuffed Israeli leaders' attempts to discuss the conditions of Jews in Russia, whose immigration to Israel was effectively prohibited.
Contemplating the future of the Middle East in a world where the US is the sole superpower, Primakov fails to discuss the negative ramifications of the Soviet legacy that may hinder its development. In his outline for the future of the Middle East, Primakov glosses over the economic problems that persist in countries that were once - or remain - beneficiaries of Russian aid. Focus is instead placed on the trouble spots where the most recent damaging interventions have come from either the US or Israel: Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Palestine. Primakov proffers Russia's counsel and co-operation in arriving at political and diplomatic solutions in all of these areas. Yet because the mechanics of Soviet and Russian foreign policy are absent from his account - as is any discussion of how policies changed when leadership did or even with the fall of Soviet Union, it's difficult to gain a sense of whether either were successful in achieving strategic aims, or what those even were. The Soviet Union only gradually and begrudgingly accepted "Arab Socialism" as part of the Marxist-Leninist canon, but it is a curious omission from a book on the Cold War penned by a former Soviet official.
The limits and damages of America's foreign policy in the Middle East - both in a Cold War world dominated by two competing superpowers and in one where it alone holds this title - seem obvious today, with the most flagrant example being the Bush administration's 2003 war in Iraq. To what degree the Obama administration can remedy the regional fallout remains to be seen, and Primakov is correct (and not alone) in suggesting the need for a counterbalancing power and a more multilateral decision-making process there. Yet he fails to convince that Soviet and Russian interventions in the Arab world have been appreciably more successful than American ones. In this regard, his account backfires: Russia as he depicts it doesn't possess the capacity or the vision to forge a Middle Eastern future that is different from what the Soviet Union helped to create in its past. What it lacks, at the moment, is the power and authority to succeed.
Michelle Risley is a business consultant in New York.