MOSCOW - The Kremlin boss sends a special envoy to Baghdad as the United States rallies support for a possible war that Moscow fears will cast the region into chaos, kill thousands of people and hurt its economic interests.
The envoy is Yevgeny Primakov. The year is 1990.
In a reprise of Primakov's efforts to avert the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Primakov to Baghdad last weekend to try and persuade Saddam Hussein to heed U.N. demands.
If anybody could do it, Primakov might be the one: a Middle East expert who was a Pravda newspaper correspondent for the region during the Cold War, he has known Saddam for decades.
"Primakov is the person Saddam knows better than anyone else from the outside world," said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. "So this is a unique contact that it would be stupid not to take advantage of."
Primakov, who worked as Boris Yeltsin's foreign intelligence chief, foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s, also has a reputation as a skillful politician.
"It's not that he has influence, but he is able to converse, to make an argument," said Alexander Bovin, a former Soviet ambassador to Israel.
Just what argument Primakov made is unclear.
In a terse statement Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Primakov's purpose was to explain Russia's position on Iraq and receive an assurance it would fulfill U.N. resolutions and cooperate "completely and unconditionally" with weapons inspectors. The ministry said Saddam told Primakov the inspectors would not be hindered.
With Washington warning that time is running out, it may take more than that to avoid war.
Russian analysts said Primakov's chief goal may have been to persuade Saddam to comply with a U.N. order to start destroying his Al Samoud 2 missiles. They said that while Russia might block the U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council resolution meant to authorize military action if Saddam capitulates - particularly on the missiles - Russia is highly unlikely to use its veto if Saddam fails to increase compliance.
"I think the aim was to explain to Saddam that he has a small chance of avoiding war and that it is in his interest to use this chance - and at least to agree to liquidate the missiles," Pikayev said. "If Saddam were to cooperate more actively, and put a weighty argument that he is cooperating in the hands of Moscow, Paris and the other opponents of war, then the chances the American resolution would pass would be minimal."
Primakov's spokeswoman, Anastasia Korchagina, said he would not discuss his trip, and Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf dismissed as "ridiculous" the idea that Primakov discussed finding asylum for Saddam.
In an interview Tuesday in the Russian daily Vremya Novostei, al-Sahhaf also asserted that Primakov did not pressure Baghdad to disarm, saying he came to "show solidarity with Iraq."
That clearly was not the purpose, but the Russian business daily Kommersant said Tuesday that Primakov is too pro-Saddam for the job of pressuring Iraq. And Primakov's close ties with Baghdad - as well as the secrecy that has shrouded his visits there - have led critics to question his motives.
Washington has sometimes bristled at Primakov's involvement in Iraq.
"He was a pain in the neck in 1990-91," a senior U.S. administration official said this week, referring to his leading role in the Soviet effort to avert the Persian Gulf War. Primakov made two trips to Iraq as an adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the fall of 1990.
Primakov also sought to prevent the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia. He found a solution in 1997 to a confrontation with Iraq over U.N. weapons inspectors. The arrangement collapsed the next year, with inspectors leaving Iraq ahead of new U.S. and British airstrikes that Russia condemned.
A stolid man of 73 who looks the part of a Soviet-era bureacrat, Primakov is a staunch advocate of a "multi-polar" world - Russia's term for a world not dominated by the United States. His 1996 appointment as foreign minister came as post-Soviet ties with Washington cooled.
Amid speculation about Primakov's latest Iraq mission, Bovin believes that it was straightforward - and that it failed.
"He wanted to convince Saddam Hussein to closely fulfill all the decisions of the Security Council," he said. "He was unable to do it."
Bovin drew a parallel with 1990, saying that back then Primakov offered Saddam a choice: "either defeat with disgrace - if they chase you out of Kuwait, or defeat without disgrace - if you withdraw on your own."
"Saddam chose disgrace," he said, and added that he seems to making the same choice again. He said he is 90 percent certain there will be war.
Pikayev, however, said Saddam might yet announce an agreement to destroy the missiles in a bid to stave off war.
"Saddam would hardly do that an hour after Primakov flew out of Iraq - that's not Saddam's style," he said. "I think that the chance that he will make a positive decision are fairly great."
Georgy Mirsky, chief political analyst at the Institute for World Economics and International Relations in Moscow, disagreed in comments to Ekho Moskvy radio this week. Pointing to Primakov's past record, he called the envoy's mission "a bad omen."
"It means there will definitely be war."