Moscow's latest comments on Iraq indicate the Kremlin is not yet backing down from its staunch opposition to a possible U.S.-led war. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 7 March that Russia would try to block a vote on a second United Nations Security Council resolution this week. What does Moscow have to gain by opposing U.S. policy?
Moscow, 10 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow over the weekend stood firm against a possible U.S.-led attack against Iraq, continuing to defy predictions that it would back down.
Speaking on 7 March on Russian television, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned against a "unilateral" U.S. decision to go to war. "That would be a violation of the UN Charter," he said. "And of course, when the UN Charter is violated, the Security Council has to meet to discuss the situation and undertake appropriate decisions."
Ivanov went one step further today, saying the Kremlin would vote against a resolution setting a deadline for Iraqi disarmament. A "no" vote by a permanent member of the Security Council constitutes a veto.
The United States and Britain say they will introduce a resolution to the Security Council this week giving Baghdad a 17 March deadline to comply with demands to destroy all its weapons of mass destruction or face a military attack.
Washington has also indicated that it is prepared to go to war without a new resolution.
As countries backing both pro- and antiwar stances stepped up diplomatic jockeying over the weekend, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov on 8 March insisted that Moscow "will do everything" to oppose a new resolution.
Russia has long contested U.S. policy on Iraq. But last week it ratcheted up opposition to a campaign against Baghdad, signing a joint declaration with France and Germany that threatens to oppose a new Security Council resolution.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with French President Jacques Chirac late yesterday, agreeing that inspections in Iraq should continue and that the majority of United Nations Security Council members backed the position, Interfax reported.
Russia is one of five permanent members of the 15-state Security Council with veto power over any resolution. Fellow war critics France and China are also permanent members.
President Putin has in recent years moved Russia's foreign policy closer to Washington's, joining the U.S.-led fight against terrorism following the 11 September 2001 attacks.
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.
Analysts have long said Russia may abstain from voting in the Security Council over a new resolution but that it would not likely sink the resolution by exercising its veto power.
However, with a deadline for action over Iraq now drawing near and Russia continuing to play a part in brinkmanship over the issue, questions have arisen about exactly how Moscow would profit by opposing a war.
Moscow has long cited economic concerns. Russia's powerful oil industry wants to safeguard contracts worth billions of dollars in oil-rich Iraq. The Kremlin is also keen on recovering some $8 billion owed by Iraq in Soviet-era debt.
The obligations are currently frozen, chiefly because of UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq.
Moscow last year also signed a symbolic five-year economic- and trade-cooperation deal worth $40 billion that includes plans for cooperation in the oil, electrical-energy, and railroad sectors.
Washington has lobbied Moscow hard over the economic issue, saying Russia stands to gain much more from a solvent post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi regime. U.S. officials say that contrary to Moscow's claims, Russia would in fact actually risk possible financial losses by opposing the U.S.-led effort to force a change of regime in Baghdad.
Sergei Karaganov is chairman of Russia's influential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy. During a discussion on foreign policy in Moscow last week, he said Russia's chief goal in arguing against war should be to insist on respect for its economic interests, which include a part in the future reconstruction of the country. "I think Russia has to use this conflict in general -- perhaps for the first time -- to set a precedent: respect for its interests, including economic ones," Karaganov said. "Naturally, the president has said we're not in an eastern bazaar and we're not haggling. But if we don't firmly say we're not going to go along the Kosovo path, that is, saving someone's skin and receiving in return nothing clear except embarrassment, then I think that will be a big mistake for Russian policy."
Karaganov added that Russia is motivated in part by the desire to maintain the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, saying it would be strained by a unilateral U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq.
Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin is a prominent member of the country's foreign-policy establishment. He said Russia should help consolidate the antiterrorism coalition's non-American members to stop Washington from using the campaign to achieve its own goals.
He said such a "historic" role should supersede economic interests, not least because Russia "already has its own oil." "[Our] main problem is how to make it so that international institutions such as the UN -- which symbolize not only the American role in global politics, but which qualify it -- work actively enough," Lukin said.
Lukin said Russia's position on Iraq is unique because disagreements with Washington over the issue have not reached an emotional level -- as with France and Germany -- and that the relationship with Washington is therefore more "rational." "Our policy is on the whole correct," he said. "It consists of working toward ensuring that war does not take place -- that's not in our interests, of course. But if it does take place, I personally don't see a big catastrophe for Russia."
In addition to being a bargaining chip, the Kremlin's hard line against a campaign in Iraq is seen as a nod to the country's conservative foreign-policy and military establishments, which have fiercely criticized Putin's post-11 September concessions to Washington.
These included the deployment of U.S. troops in former Soviet republics and agreeing to Washington's withdrawal in 2001 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Moscow had previously said was the cornerstone to global security.
With parliamentary elections this year and presidential elections in 2004, and with the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party losing support in at least one public-opinion poll, Putin risks losing some of his overwhelming popularity by being perceived as soft on the Iraq issue.
But while criticizing U.S. policy, Moscow has also sent out signals that war would not irreparably damage relations with Washington. Deputy Foreign Minister Fedotov yesterday said the United States and Russia share too many common interests for relations to be soured over Iraq.
"Time" magazine cited on 9 March an unidentified White House official as saying that Putin had assured U.S. President George W. Bush that Moscow would not veto a UN resolution authorizing force in Iraq.
Such statements, together with periodic criticism of Baghdad, have fueled ongoing expectations that despite Moscow's hard bargaining over Iraq, it will indeed step down at the last minute.