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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Producing Unity In Moscow

Washington, 5 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military response to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's aggression against his own people has produced a rare moment of unanimity in Moscow: a blanket condemnation of the American action from the entire Russian political spectrum.

In public comments yesterday on the second American airstrike into southern Iraq, there was little to distinguish among the words of Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov, the remarks of Boris Yeltsin's reformist aide Anatoly Chubais, the comments of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, and the statement of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

All condemned the latest American moves as dangerous and unjustified and said they reflected Washington's desire to dominate the world without any consultation with other powers.

Reacting to this unusually harsh and unanimous Russian rhetoric, some Western reporting has suggested that it represents a kind of return to the Cold War.

While a superficially attractive interpretation, it is almost certainly profoundly wrong.

Instead, the Russian statements reflect a broad and perhaps expanding consensus in Russia about that country's national interests, interests which sometimes will allow Moscow to cooperate with the West and sometimes, as now, put it at odds.

The current Russian criticism of American action reflects three widely-held Russian views and not some new kind of ideological straightjacket.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, virtually all Russians have been afraid that the United States would exploit its position as the last remaining superpower to dominate the world and to promote its interests in a unilateral fashion.

For most of the last five years, the United States has gone out of its way to assure Moscow that it has no interest in pursuing such a unilateralist policy. Even in this case, various U.S. government spokesmen pointedly noted that Washington had been in close contact with Moscow before acting.

But despite that, the American actions this week, although based on an April 1991 U.N. Security Council resolution that Russia voted for as well, nonetheless appear to provide evidence that the United States is moving off in precisely the direction that Russians have feared.

Russia has made considerable economic and political investments in Iraq, equities threatened by the American moves. Earlier this year, for example, Moscow signed a major deal with Iraq to develop its oil industry once U.N. sanctions are lifted, and not surprisingly Russian diplomats since that time have pressed hard for removing these sanctions and allowing Iraqi oil to flow onto world markets.

The latest Iraqi actions and the American response almost certainly delay that and thus hurt Russia both financially and politically.

Russians who have just experienced one of the most tumultuous decades in their recent history are profoundly concerned about anything that appears to threaten stability in regions adjacent to themselves.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Washington had taken this action to preserve stability in the Middle East by demonstrating to Saddam Hussein that aggression will not go unpunished. But from the Russian perspective, the latest American actions appear likely to exacerbate rather than calm the situation and to produce precisely the regional instability that Washington says it wants to avoid.

Given these widespread convictions among Russians about where their country's national interests lie, the statements coming out of Moscow during the past two days should not be a surprise. Indeed, in one important respect, they reflect precisely the reorientation in Russian foreign policy that the West has sought.

In this case, Russia is acting like a country with its own interests to defend rather than a cause to be advanced by mobilizing other countries against the United States.

But that extremely important change may be overlooked in this not unimportant disagreement between Moscow and Washington.