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Russia: President Faces Tough Decision Over Iraq

  • Gregory Feifer

With U.S. military action in Iraq looming ever closer, Russia faces a crucial decision over whether to acquiesce to war. Washington took a step closer to an attack with Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council yesterday detailing the case for war. But a number of steps remain to be taken ahead of a conflict, and analysts say Moscow is keeping its options open.

Moscow, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As Washington continues to make its case for war in Iraq, Moscow is keeping its options open over whether to protest a military attack.

The White House took a step closer to a campaign against Baghdad yesterday with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's address to the United Nations Security Council. The top U.S. diplomat presented satellite photographs and intelligence intercepts to bolster claims Saddam Hussein is concealing banned weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said after the presentation that it was too early to go to war and that the evidence, rather than bolstering the case for war, instead demonstrated why weapons inspections should be allowed to continue. He also said Powell's information "requires the most serious and comprehensive study" before any final conclusions can be made.

Ivanov will meet with legislators in the Duma (lower house of parliament) tomorrow to discuss Russian experts' reactions to the evidence.

Centrist Konstantin Kosachev is deputy chairman of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee. He told RFE/RL ahead of Powell's presentation that Moscow's response will take time, "I don't expect any reaction from the Russian side for now, and in the long run, that reaction will be defined by how much [Powell's] information is convincing and truthful."

While the time draws closer for a decision from the Kremlin over support for a war, analysts say Russia could go either way. The chief variable is whether Washington will decide to push for a new Security Council resolution authorizing military force -- or instead choose to go it alone, backed by a "coalition of the willing."

Russia has one of the five permanent seats on the 15-member Security Council. That position gives it veto power over any resolution. Fellow war critics France and China are also permanent members.

Kosachev said Moscow might back a war, but added that Washington would set a dangerous precedent if it chooses to act unilaterally. "We will be ready to uphold any decision concerning Iraq, including on the carrying out of force, but only if it is made by the UN Security Council and on the basis of proved conditions and facts," he said.

Kosachev said Russia's interests lie not in defending the Iraqi regime, but in protecting the system of collective post-World War Two international security.

But there are economic interests as well: Russia's powerful oil industry wants to safeguard billion-dollar contracts in oil-rich Iraq, while the Kremlin is keen on recovering $8 billion in Soviet-era debt.

Alluding to the general criticism that Washington is using a military campaign as a pretext for gaining access to Iraqi oil, Kosachev said Moscow is against using Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a "pseudo-threat" to realize economic interests.

Although Russia has consistently criticized the U.S. position on Iraq, France and Germany have taken the lead in recent weeks.

In a sign Moscow might be preparing the Russian public for a policy change, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- during a summit meeting in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv last week -- said Moscow's position against Iraq could toughen if Baghdad obstructed inspectors' work.

Putin has in recent years moved Russia's foreign policy closer to Washington's, joining the U.S.-led fight against terrorism following 11 September. But Moscow has continued criticizing what it sees as Washington's unilateralism on the global geopolitical stage. The Kremlin has also moved to forge closer ties with U.S. opponents -- including Iraq, a traditional Soviet ally.

Foreign policy expert Vyacheslav Nikonov is director of Moscow's Politika Foundation. He says Putin is currently maintaining a "very flexible" position allowing him room for diplomatic maneuvering. "He hasn't left a single door closed. He hasn't shut off any options, understanding that the United States will in any case likely undertake military action against Iraq. That's why I'd evaluate his talk in Kyiv as having the appearance of added flexibility, as presenting the possibility that Russia can adopt any position without any serious domestic political losses for the president," Nikonov said.

Nikonov said no final decision has yet been made over backing a conflict in Iraq and that Powell's speech alone cannot change the playing field. The situation in the Security Council remains "very dynamic," he said.

Nikonov said war is all but inevitable: if Washington feels it cannot win support for a war resolution, it will go it alone. But he added that Moscow, in the end, will not stand in the way of war. "If the question comes to a military operation or Russia's vote [against it], Russia will most likely support America. Russia will under no circumstances want to be the last country in line getting in the way of the United States carrying out its actions," he said.

Viktor Kremenyuk is deputy director of the USA and Canada Institute. He disagrees, saying Putin may indeed stick his neck out to try to block U.S. military action. "[The Kremlin] will probably try to avoid pushing the situation to a veto, but Russia will likely try to coordinate with France and China to try to keep matters from heading to a [new] resolution that will allow the United States to begin a war. Russia doesn't want that -- that's certain," Kremenyuk said.

Kremenyuk called "wishful thinking" the prevailing view that Putin changed his position in Kyiv last week, saying the president's words were chiefly a threat to the Iraqi leader -- and an afterthought to his long-stated position that Moscow is happy with the progress of the inspections regime.

Instead, Kremenyuk said, Washington has put itself in a difficult position. He echoed common criticism saying that if experts deem Powell's evidence significant, that information should have been shared earlier with inspectors. Failure to do so means the United States is itself not cooperating with the international body.

Kremenyuk meanwhile said Putin may well take a political gamble by upholding his refusal to go along with war. With parliamentary elections this year and presidential elections in 2004 -- and with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party losing support fast -- Putin risks losing popularity with a perceived capitulation over Iraq.

"If under the conditions [of anti-Americanism in certain political circles], he says, 'Please, go ahead, bomb away,' it could cost him very dearly. In that case, the military, all the nationalists and the Communists unhappy over the decision could unite against him -- it would be, as they say, a wide front. And he'd have nothing to counter that because the results of his partnership with the United States are very questionable," Kremenyuk said.

Kremenyuk concluded: "To receive the support of the majority [of voters], you have to be anti-American and not pro-American."