The Russian quagmire

September 20, 1998|By JEFF STEIN

With his stocky shoulders and hooded eyes, Oleg Kalugin looks every inch the Russian spy he was for 32 years. Indeed, Kalugin eventually rose to the top of the KGB, or Committee for State Security, as head of its First Directorate, responsible for planting spies and creating havoc in the United States. He lives in the Washington area. One of Kalugin's life-long comrades in espionage was Yevgeny M. Primakov, whom Boris Yeltsin recently named as prime minister to defuse an explosive showdown with the communists. In 1991, Primakov was head of Russia's new Foreign Intelligence Directorate. Washington writer Jeff Stein, a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, GQ, Playboy and the New York Times, recently debriefed Kalugin on his old friend Primakov and what's likely to happen in the crisis in the Kremlin.

You've known Primakov since the 1950s. What is he like?

Primakov is a man for all seasons. He has a knack of making friends. He's not a fanatic about anything. Let me tell you a story: Several years ago, we met at a restaurant in Moscow. The chief of KGB intelligence in Jordan was with us. We were talking about the Israeli-Arab conflict, and this man was very anti-Israeli, which was all right at the time because it was 1989 and that was the Soviet policy. But Primakov, who is a specialist in Oriental Studies and who had served for years in the Middle East, where he and the KGB helped the Palestine Liberation Front become what it is today, patiently and meticulously, very quietly made the argument that Israel has the right to exist, it's a historic fact, and if we try to eliminate or destroy Israel, we'd have to deal with the United States and maybe nuclear war. I was amazed at his patience and ability, and the fact that he was arguing so persuasively and privately, against the Soviet position. What if the KGB official had reported on him? He was not afraid of speaking his mind.

So he will try to compromise, try to look for solutions rather than alienate someone. That's what makes him a flexible, easy-to-deal with politician. This is why even Madeleine Albright found him extremely friendly and capable of concessions if necessary, within his notions and ideals of Russian interests, of course.

How long will Primakov's appointment defuse the crisis?

For maybe two or three months. The economic problems will remain as they were.

What can we expect from his economic policies?

The Primakov way looks to be more Soviet-style. More discipline, more state control, more government interference. This we're familiar with, so I do not believe his recipe for economic recovery will work. As soon as people find out his solutions aren't working, he'll probably be dumped for someone else.

Are mass demonstrations and strikes planned for Oct. 7 still going forward?

Yes. They will not be as massive and violent as predicted, because the parliamentary opposition has pledged to work with the government. Now they will be anti-Yeltsin, and a demand for his immediate resignation. The thrust will be personal, against Yeltsin.

Will the Russian military move on Boris Yeltsin?

If there is a spark, some major conflict between civilians and, say, the Interior Ministry troops, which guard public order, the military will certainly side with the civilians, not the militia or police. I absolutely have no doubt of it.

What makes you so sure?

It's already happening on a small scale. Three weeks ago in a small town 150 miles from Moscow, a captain in a military unit hijacked a tank, put it on the square with a poster on top, with the message: "Give us back our salaries." The civilians gathered around the tanks and applauded and cheered and expressed all sorts of support for this young captain. His superiors were appalled and called Moscow for instructions. They said, "Well, send other tanks to get him back." They sent a few tanks, but the civilians blocked the road, and the tanks stopped. This is an individual case, but can you imagine 10 tanks, or an entire regiment, going out in the street and protesting and supported by the civilians? I am confident, I am certain, the military will never raise its arms against civilians, even in the worst imaginable situation.

I thought the loyalty of Kremlin guards was unshakable?

There are a couple of divisions around Moscow, crack troops like the [Felix] Dzerzshinski Unit, which are considered loyalist and are supposed to defend the Kremlin if something happens. But because the military men have their own solidarity, the Interior Ministry troops are infected. They are not happy, either. Just because they are elite troops doesn't mean they will defend the government. Their loyalty is very doubtful. The bottom line is that they will side with the other armed forces. When the chips are down, I think they will not defend the Kremlin.

By civilian standards, isn't the Russian army well off?

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