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Russia: Moscow Hails Iraq Lull As Foreign-Policy Victory -- Not Everyone's Convinced

  • Gregory Feifer

With Baghdad saying it will allow United Nations weapons inspectors into Iraq, Russia is claiming a victory in its self-described efforts to avert a U.S.-led war in the Arab country. But while some analysts and politicians are saying Russia was instrumental in putting the brakes on U.S. plans for regime change in Baghdad, others question what role, if any, Russia still plays in U.S. policy decisions.

Prague, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is claiming success on the foreign-policy stage after U.S. President George W. Bush promised to work with the United Nations Security Council before staging a potential military attack on Iraq, and Baghdad conceded to readmit UN weapons inspectors.

Both decisions came after weeks of international debate and discussion of the Iraq problem, with virtually all of the world's major powers urging the U.S. to forgo its unilateralist course and pressing for the UN to moderate the brewing conflict.

But some Russian politicians say it is Moscow that ultimately played a key role both in tempering Bush's determination to invade Iraq and in convincing Baghdad to readmit UN inspectors. Iraq announced the surprise decision in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan late on 16 September.

Sergei Shishkarev, deputy chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL that Russia was instrumental in influencing Baghdad's decision, saying that without Moscow's intervention, "the Iraq problem would not involve the search for a peaceful path."

"I think, first of all, that with Russia's cooperation, with the specific guarantees that the Russian side has given in the UN Security Council and with the concrete actions of Russian diplomacy, Iraq agreed to allow UN specialists onto its territory. That hasn't happened for many years, and God willing, this step will now be taken. God willing, the specialists will arrive and explain to the international community that no weapons of mass destruction are being developed in Iraq at the present moment," Shishkarev said.

Sergei Markov, the head of Moscow's pro-Kremlin Institute for Political Studies, said Russia had expected Bush to issue an ultimatum to Iraq in his address to the UN General Assembly on 12 September. Instead, the U.S. president promised to work with the UN on a new Security Council resolution -- something Markov said Moscow believes is the result of its persistence. "First, that George Bush didn't issue an ultimatum to Iraq and second, that work has now begun on a Security Council resolution on Iraq, and that Iraq decided to accept arms inspectors, that's, of course, seen as a massive victory for Russian diplomacy," Markov said.

Markov credits the mounting conflict between Russia and Georgia over the Pankisi Gorge with influencing Washington's decision. Russia and Georgia have been at odds over the lawless region near the border with Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, which Russia says is used by rebels to stage incursions into Russia.

Markov said Russian President Vladimir Putin's 11 September speech threatening Georgia with military action if it failed to respond to Moscow's concerns over Chechen rebels allegedly based in the Pankisi Gorge was in fact directed not at Tbilisi but squarely at Washington.

Putin's warning implied Russia would be forced to act if Georgia continued to violate the UN Security Council resolution passed in the wake of last year's 11 September attacks on preventing "those who finance, plan, facilitate or commit terrorist acts" from operating on the territory of member states. Russia commonly refers to Chechen rebels as "terrorists" and characterizes its three-year-old war in the breakaway republic as part of the war on terrorism.

Markov noted that Putin's speech came just a day before Bush's address to the UN General Assembly. "Vladimir Putin, with his firm statement, tried to let George Bush know that beginning military action in Iraq without the sanction of the UN would be opening Pandora's box. And that in the tracks of the United States, many [countries] could use that model of problem solving, including Russia in relation to Georgia," Markov said.

Putin's warning sparked speculation that Washington might be negotiating a deal in which Russia would agree not to veto a resolution on a U.S. attack on Iraq in the Security Council in return for the U.S.'s turning a blind eye to Russian actions in Georgia. But some analysts dismiss such speculation. These include Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, who said Washington will not consider the Pankisi issue when considering what to do in Iraq. He added that Georgia is a relatively minor foreign-policy issue, even for Russia.

"What is Georgia and what is Pankisi for Russia's foreign policy? Essentially nothing. It pleases a few generals, but can in many ways harm the country's image, its foreign policy, and relations with European countries. The balance isn't level. I think the drawn-out process and the question over Iraq and the simultaneous deferral over the question of Georgia in general reflects the truth of the matter," Kremenyuk said.

Markov agrees that the situations in Iraq and Georgia are not comparable, even in Moscow's eyes. He said Russia is far more interested in the fate of Iraq because of global security and other crucial matters such as the price of oil. "Georgia isn't essentially important right now. In general, the operation in the Pankisi Gorge is not important from a strategic point of view. In fact, why is such an operation needed? Is the situation on the Chechen border really catastrophic? No. No catastrophe is going on there," Markov said.

Critics say Russia's hard line on Georgia may also reflect a desire to deflect attention away from Moscow's inability to make headway in its seemingly unwinnable conflict in Chechnya.

But while the Kremlin stands firm on Georgia and Iraq for now, there are already signs that instead of pushing for a confrontation, Moscow may be preparing to soften its line on both issues.

On 17 September, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov downplayed Georgia as a foreign-policy problem. He also indicated what analysts have long predicted, that Russia would ultimately not obstruct an eventual U.S. attack on Iraq. He added yesterday that the Iraq question would not affect U.S.-Russia relations, which have warmed considerably in the year since the 11 September attacks.

Such apparent beneficence, however, may reflect Moscow's fear that the U.S. will pursue its foreign-policy goals regardless of Russian opinion. Kremenyuk said it is generally believed Moscow's protests over Iraq, like those over NATO bombing in Yugoslavia in 1999, will be ignored. "The West doesn't really take these protests into consideration," Kremenyuk said. "It if considers it necessary to use force, it will. For Russia, all that is left is to join in later and pretend that nothing happened."