Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in an interview published yesterday, said that after years of searching for new policies, Moscow has decided its interests lie firmly with the West. Given President Vladimir Putin's pro-Western moves since 11 September, Ivanov's declaration was not a surprise. But the Russian foreign minister went a step further, saying Russia's principal threats come not from the United States or NATO, but from Asia. He also indicated Moscow is prepared not to impede possible U.S. military action against Iraq. RFE/RL speaks to two foreign policy experts -- one in Moscow and one in London -- for an analysis of what lies behind Ivanov's words.
Prague, 11 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's wide-ranging, front-page interview published yesterday in the Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" comes ahead of a meeting of all Russia's main foreign diplomats, which begins in Moscow later today.
Such a convocation of ambassadors has not taken place in 20 years, according to "Izvestiya," and is meant to confirm Moscow's new Western-oriented foreign policy, which has been the hallmark of the Kremlin since the terrorist attacks of 11 September.
In many respects, the points stressed by Ivanov in his interview are already familiar, having been stressed repeatedly by President Vladimir Putin in the wake of 11 September, as he attempts to make common cause with the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
But both the timing of Ivanov's interview and the emphasis Russia's foreign minister placed on certain Kremlin policies are worth noting, according to analysts.
In the interview, Ivanov stresses that after a period of uncertainty in the 1990s, Russia has now firmly determined its diplomatic priorities. "In the early 1990s we were in a state of searching and shakiness, unclear whether to be with Europe or Asia or someone else," Ivanov said.
Now, says Ivanov, Moscow's priorities are firmly anchored in the West. What's more, he added, Russia knows it cannot resuscitate the bipolar world of the Cold War era, nor does it want to. In essence, Russia's foreign minister is saying Moscow will not try to compete with the world's lone remaining superpower, the United States, but will instead strive for more realistic goals that correspond to its interests. These include greater integration with Western states, primarily as a predictable and reliable trading partner.
Ivanov specifically says that, in his view, neither NATO nor the United States presents a threat to Russia. Instead, he says, the threat comes from the Caucasus and what he terms "the Asian frontier."
Ivanov, in the Kremlin's clearest indication yet that Russia will not attempt to block possible U.S.-led military action against Iraq, told "Izvestiya" that Moscow's primary goal is to avoid any complications in its ties with the West over Iraq. Asked what Russia would do if an attack does happen, Ivanov merely noted that Moscow will "judge that situation as it develops." Given Moscow's previously strong support for Iraq and its adamant opposition to U.S. action against Saddam Hussein, what should the West make of Ivanov's latest statements?
What was the purpose of Ivanov's interview, why was it given to "Izvestiya," and why now? According to leading Russian analyst Aleksandr Pikaev, a director at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Ivanov's statements were primarily aimed at the ministry's domestic adversaries. "I think that this interview is more aimed at internal opponents of the Kremlin's pro-Western foreign policy because 'Izvestiya' is a newspaper that is primarily read within Russia. It's a rather elite newspaper aimed at the foreign-policy and domestic-policy establishment, and if the minister wanted to address the West, I think he would have given an interview to an influential Western newspaper or another influential Western media outlet," Pikaev said.
Pikaev said Putin has run into opposition for his foreign-policy U-turn since 11 September from many official quarters, and he sees Ivanov's interview as an attempt to mollify that opposition. Even the manner in which "Izvestiya's" interviewer phrased his questions -- often in a confrontational style, as if he, too, stood in the ranks of Ivanov's conservative critics -- indicates Ivanov is keen to address the concerns of the anti-Western lobby in Russia.
Pikaev said: "I think that there are opponents to this pro-Western stance present in many institutions of the Russian government, and if you look at the questions posed by the 'Izvestiya' correspondent -- and 'Izvestiya' is a rather liberal newspaper -- you will see in these questions that the correspondent to a certain degree criticizes Russia's current foreign policy. And most of the critics, it seems to me -- with the exception of extremists like the Communists -- are not so much unhappy about this rapprochement with the West. I think most people support such a rapprochement, but they are unhappy with the fact that this rapprochement has so far failed to bring any concrete dividends, in their opinion. And [Foreign] Minister Ivanov was trying to polemicize with this point of view," Pikaev said.
Ivanov was at pains to stress recent gains achieved by the Kremlin's new foreign policy, including Russia's formal induction into the G-8 group of industrialized countries. But Pikaev said Ivanov's replies also carried a message to the West that it will have to work harder to resolve disagreements with Moscow if it wants to anchor Russia in the West. Among the steps that could cement the new relationship, he noted, would be Russian membership in the World Trade Organization or a deal on the Kaliningrad exclave. "Maybe entry in the WTO, maybe a resolution of the Kaliningrad question, which is becoming a serious irritant in relations between Russia and the European Union, maybe some other steps by the United States. Although one has to note that recently, Moscow and Washington have adapted similar positions on a whole range of questions. For example, Moscow and Washington exerted joint pressure on the [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze regime to get him to make a decision on the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia. So Russia's pro-Western policies have, in fact, brought some small dividends so far," Pikaev said.
As Russia draws closer to the West, strains in Moscow's relations with Beijing are being exposed. Ivanov acknowledged Russia's frustration with China's recent decision to restrict the importation of certain Russian goods.
According to Katinka Barysch, a Russia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, this is a natural development. "Relations with China have always been pretty ambiguous, even at the time when Russia and China were still going on about building an alliance to counter U.S. influence. There were more disagreements than agreements and countries that are friends don't even sign friendship agreements, as Russia and China did at the time. So they obviously deemed that necessary. There have always been differences. There's always been ambiguity. Putin's move in favor of the U.S. wasn't necessarily aimed against China, but China is definitely being left out in the cold, so the Chinese are getting worried. And that brings the differences that are already there back to the fore," Barysch said.
Nevertheless, despite Ivanov's negative comments, Pikaev noted that Ivanov was careful to underline Moscow's desire for good ties with Beijing. "On the whole, it seems to me that the minister had quite a few positive things to say about the relationship with China. He said it would be very dangerous to return to the Soviet policy of the 1970s and 1980s when Moscow tried to insulate itself from China through barbed wire, artillery, and mines in the hope that this would resolve the Soviet security problem. The minister contrasted current Russian policy toward China with those former policies, and he urged a continuation of the current course. In addition, the minister spoke a lot about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He mentioned it in the same context with the development of relations between Russia and NATO, and this was also a rather friendly gesture toward China," Pikaev said.
Barysch noted that the budding trade relationship between Russia and China -- which has become Moscow's largest arms purchaser -- is unlikely to be affected even if diplomatic ties suffer. "Russia wants to use its arms industry to give some sort of technology boost to the rest of its industry, which is rather out-of-date. So the arms trade is important for Russia, and China is its most important customer. But because the mutual interests here are very clear -- because [China] cannot simply go and shop for its arms somewhere else and Russia cannot simply sell its arms somewhere else, because they're not necessarily fully competitive -- the interests here are clear, and I don't see how other foreign-policy issues could get in the way of this kind of business," Barysch said.
One of the questions posed by policymakers in recent months is whether Russia's new warm relations with the West, especially with Washington, could survive a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Russia has long supported Baghdad, not least because Iraq still owes it some $8 billion in Soviet-era debt, which Moscow is keen to recuperate. In his interview, Ivanov gives the clearest indication so far that Moscow would not stand in the way of a new Gulf War aimed at removing Saddam Hussein.
In Barysch's view, this is a reflection of Moscow's pragmatism. "The whole Russian foreign policy at the moment is characterized by pragmatism and realism, and when Russia now goes ahead and implicitly indicates that they wouldn't do anything in case the U.S. attacks Iraq, that is pure realism -- what could they do?" Barysch said.
But Pikaev sees something deeper in Ivanov's reply, noting that while Moscow is not likely ever to assist the United States militarily in an Iraqi campaign, Ivanov could be signaling Moscow's readiness to come to a quid pro quo arrangement with Washington. "I think Russia is unlikely to take part in military actions. It is hardly likely to send its armed forces there, but if it manages to agree with the Americans on guarantees about the repayment of Iraq's Soviet-era debt after the war, and if the Americans guarantee that oil contracts which have been promised to Russian firms will be honored by the new Iraqi regime after the war, then I think -- and this is my expert opinion -- I think Russia will maintain a neutral stance, a benevolent neutrality, and it will not make a fuss about any military operation," Pikaev said.
Tomorrow, President Putin is due to address Russia's assembled diplomatic corps in Moscow. More hints may be dropped at that time on Moscow's approach to the issue of Iraq.