A man for all seasons

A man for all seasons: Russia's former KGB chief dishes the truth about new Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.


Jeff Stein
September 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

With his stocky shoulders and hooded eyes, Oleg Kalugin still looks every inch the Russian spy he was for 32 years. Indeed, Kalugin eventually rose to the top of the KGB as head of its First Directorate, responsible for planting spies and creating havoc in the United States. He now lives in the United States.

One of Kalugin's lifelong comrades in espionage was Yevgeny Primakov, whom Boris Yeltsin named as prime minister last week to defuse an explosive showdown with the Communists. In 1991, Primakov was head of Russia's new Foreign Intelligence Directorate, and later, foreign minister.

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Salon correspondent Jeff Stein 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's 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 they are today, patiently, 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. 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 and Russian interests, of course.

How long will Primakov's appointment diffuse the crisis?

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

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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 already 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 again for somebody else.

Are the 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.

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Will the Russian military ever move on 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?

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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 the 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] Dzerzhinski 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.

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

No, not really. There's no money, no new technology, no spare parts, no housing, no anything -- just to mention a few things. Desertions have become a major headache. One-fifth of the recruits just flee -- 40,000 people annually. Soldiers in uniform are begging in the streets. Officers are committing suicide in great numbers -- their families are falling apart because they cannot feed them. All this accumulates to an explosive force. It's a serious situation.

What about the loyalty of the federal security agents, the old KGB?

Generally, people in the security services are just as unhappy as people in the military these days, but for somewhat different reasons. While they are more or less paid regularly, they hate what's happened in Russia. They hate the market economy, they hate the so-called New Russians, because the security service is supposed to fight economic crime, and they know that economic crimes are a direct result of the New Russians' cheating, corruption and theft.

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And the foxes are running the chicken coop?

Exactly, exactly. And because the agents cannot cope with one of their main missions, to fight economic crime, they hate the establishment, they hate Yeltsin, they hate whomever has brought this plague on Russia. So they cannot be trusted, and they will not fight to defend the Kremlin, and actually they are not capable of fighting, because some of the military units they used to have have been taken away.

Are nuclear weapons secure?

Let me quote former Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, who said early in 1997, "Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its rockets and nuclear systems cannot be controlled." That was 18 months ago. He was the Defense Minister.

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Do you think that's true, or just a public threat to exact payment to his men?

I think it's both. In Chechnya, the weapons the rebels used were all Russian weapons -- the troops sold them to them. Any sergeant who has something to sell will do it. Missiles are more difficult to handle, but some components can be easily stolen and sold to whomever is willing to buy.

In Russia, anything is possible. Whoever protects, controls and defends military installations, warehouses, laboratories are all with people who, simply to survive, have to steal.

When I was in Moscow three years ago, I was offered helicopters and MiGs to sell abroad. I asked, where did you get them? And they said, "That's none of your business, that's not for you to worry about. Find us a buyer." That was three years ago. You can imagine what it's like now.

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Is that how Russian nuclear technology is getting to Iran?

We hear all the denials of the Russian government that there were no violations of any rules established between the United States and Russia to not sell something that would bolster the defenses or capabilities of rogue states like Iran. But again, all these claims should be taken with a grain of salt, because how could you verify them? We have a sufficient number of examples that this did happen.

Are we at a point of chaos yet in Russia?

I use the old slogan of 1917, when some people said, "Power lies in the
streets." Whoever is willing to pick it up, whoever has some kind of
organization, or political will, they can grab power. Today Russia is in
that situation. Power is now lying in the streets.

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General [Alexander] Lebed said something to the effect that the situation in
Russia is developing so rapidly that if a rebellion happens soon, we will
probably not even know the names of people who took over in the country.
They won't be the names on the lips of everyone now -- Kryuchkov or Lebed.
It will be someone absolutely unknown, who will arise as a result of a
confrontation.

Would General Lebed lead a revolt himself?

No. I have a feeling he will not instigate something -- he knows it is a
crime -- but if there is a genuine popular revolt, where the armed forces
are involved and the people appeal to him, he will respond positively.
That's my hunch.

Just like Yeltsin did against Gorbachev.

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That's true. That's true. But Lebed will never, never instigate a military
takeover, because he knows it's a capital offense and this would not be
supported by many. But if there's a natural, spontaneous explosion, and
there's an appeal for him to take over, he will not reject it.

Can Yeltsin survive this crisis?

I think his tenacity is well-known. But his mental capacity and his will
have been lately on the wane. He has lost his grip. He knows he may be
ousted and charged with crimes -- high treason, murder, theft.

High treason?

Absolutely. He will be charged with high treason because he was the most
important player in the dissolution of the USSR. He will be charged with
murder, because 150 people were killed in the parliament during the
shelling by Yeltsin's tanks in 1993. And because of the war in Chechnya,
where there were thousands of deaths -- people don't even know how many,
maybe 100,000. This war was never approved by the parliament, it
was just an internal operation, somebody just sent them out to commit
genocide against the Chechnyan people.

You spoke at rallies back then, so you know what it's like to be in the
vortex of a gathering coup.

Yes, I was one of the few who spoke out. But it was just to a few hundred
people who would listen and applaud -- nothing like today, when there are
tens of thousands.

And if the present crisis is not diffused by Oct. 7?

There will be millions of people demonstrating in the streets of all
Russian cities, and a general strike which will paralyze ... [chuckles]
whatever is left of the economy, all the transportation systems, which may
result in some kind of action. Whether it will be the overthrow of the
government, we don't know. This is where the military may join the
civilians. Because it has not only been miners, teachers and doctors who
have already been demonstrating for months with no effect, but it will also
be the military-industrial complex, it will be -- I mean, everyone will come
join the protest.

If the Communists come into the government, will they attempt a return to
a Soviet-style command economy?

It's already in the air -- six banks have been nationalized. Other
private banks may be closed and their assets taken over. There will be a
fixed, government-maintained currency exchange rate -- with the black
market back, of course. There may be restrictions on foreign travel, and
on the Russian Internet -- there is already a draft law in the parliament
to register every user and provider. The media will certainly be curbed,
because it's owned by private interests, the bankers and others. So there
will be a clampdown on the media, that is assured. Television will be one
of the first casualties of these new laws. Those who resist will be charged
with anti-patriotic something-or-other -- they'll have to come up with
something new for the criminal code, but they always do.

Is there any military threat to the West lurking in this grim scenario?

No, no. Moscow is so consumed with its domestic problems it simply has no
time, resources, interests or anything to challenge the West. And what can
it challenge with? What can it offer?

Weapons. The only thing Russia has to sell is its weapons.

That's right, that's right.

President Clinton has been hammered for standing by Yeltsin. What was
the alternative?

The administration put all its eggs in one basket. There were a lot of
young guys in Russia and the government who were staunch supporter of
liberal reforms, but they were never given a good play in the Western
media. They were isolated, because they did not want to offend Yeltsin.
These people were neglected [by the Clinton administration]. We should've
invited them here, or to Great Britain, and given them a chance to show
themselves.

And where did our financial aid -- our billions -- go wrong?

Most of it was misdirected. It was looted, squandered. The Western
powers or lending institutions should have dealt with private businesses
and encouraged joint ventures where, for example, they could have overhauled
an automobile industry. Instead, they gave it to the bankers and it was a
waste of money.

Do we have any influence over the course of events now?

No, unfortunately. And the United States, a great country which was
admired by many Russians for many decades -- well, the Russians feel
disappointed, they feel betrayed. This is bad. Anti-Americanism is on the
rise. I feel sorry that some people who used to be my friends speak of
America in a most negative way now.

Where did we go wrong?

When the West won the Cold War and defeated the former Soviet Union, it
was not the end, it was the beginning. But I think the White House, and
the West generally, thought, well, the war is over, let's enjoy ourselves.
But that was just the beginning of another war -- the war against the
totalitarian mentality in Russia. That requires years of persistence and
hard work. It's still up for grabs, but it's hard not to say now that that
war may be lost.


Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

MORE FROM Jeff Stein

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