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Russia: Moscow Must Do More Than Simply Oppose U.S. Foreign Policy

There has been much hand-wringing in Moscow in recent days over the government's stand against the war in Iraq, with liberal politicians and analysts calling for cooperation instead of opposition when it comes to future relations with Washington. But as the White House plots its post-Iraq war agenda, how likely is the Kremlin to change its line?

Moscow, 18 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow stood steadfastly against a war in Iraq, even as Washington headed resolutely toward it. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Russia continues to oppose U.S. foreign policy.

That is precisely what liberal politicians and foreign policy experts are saying Russia should immediately stop doing.

Dismayed that the government brushed aside insistent warnings that its opposition to the war in Iraq would bring Moscow only losses in influence and economic advantage on the international stage, they now say the Kremlin needs to learn its lessons and seek constructive dialogue instead of outright and futile opposition.

Andrei Zagorskii is deputy director of Moscow's Institute for Applied International Studies. He echoes the common opinion: "It's necessary not to talk parallel to one another, but to conduct a direct dialogue and come to agreement, including with the United States, on common positions."

But if the Kremlin is listening to the message, it isn't letting on. As fellow war critics France and Germany seek to improve badly frayed ties with the United States, Russia has taken the lead in opposing U.S. plans for Iraq's future.

Vyacheslav Nikonov is director of Moscow's Politika Foundation. He says Moscow's reaction to the war in Iraq went overboard, with Russia's position "the most anti-American of all the world's states."

Nikonov says it is in Russian President Vladimir Putin's own hands to improve relations. He plays down the reputed influence of military top brass and security-services officials who have pushed for a hard line against the United States.

Instead, Nikonov points to the fact that the country is preparing for parliamentary elections in December and presidential ones next March: "I don't think what the generals said influenced Putin's position as much as domestic political considerations tied to the fact that the country is in a new election cycle under conditions in which 90 percent of the population opposed the U.S. war in Iraq."

Not everyone agrees about Putin's motives. Vladimir Pribylovskii is president of the Panorama political-research group. He says in the case of opposition to the war in Iraq, Putin spoke his own mind: "In terms of the motives for the president's actions, I wouldn't call them part of the election campaign. He'll win the elections whatever happens. In this case, Putin just wanted to be on the side of his people."

Nikonov says Washington could have easily used Russia's actions over the war to allow relations to deteriorate even more than they did. But he says the White House is keen to see them improve, and that ties will be on the mend when Bush travels to St. Petersburg to meet Putin in May.

If that's the case, there will be a lot of ground to cover until then.

Speaking on the sidelines of a summit meeting of European Union countries in Athens on 17 April, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reiterated his opposition to the U.S. position on Iraq's future, saying the United Nations should play a central role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

The United States and Britain insist the UN will have a "vital" role, but not the central one.

The Politika Foundation's Nikonov says that while U.S.-Russia relations are built on a more solid platform than rhetoric alone, Russia's position over the issue -- still an open-ended question -- is not helping any potential reconciliation.

The Kremlin has also stepped up opposition to U.S. policy over Syria, which Washington accuses of sheltering Iraqi officials and supplying arms to Baghdad.

Russia reacted sharply to U.S. threats to consider imposing sanctions on Damascus, Moscow's Soviet-era ally.

Foreign Minister Ivanov said on 17 April that Washington should avoid "overcomplicating" questions about whether Syria has weapons of mass destruction.

Nikonov says it remains to be seen how the issue will play out. He says Russia's stance -- and its ensuing effect on ties with the United States -- will depend on actions by Damascus.

But it is over North Korea that the course of U.S.-Russia relations may be set for the foreseeable future as the isolated Stalinist state moves to the top of the world's agenda.

Pyongyang sparked a nuclear standoff in October when it admitted to violating international agreements by running a secret program to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear arms -- as well as a plutonium program frozen after a 1994 agreement with Washington.

As North Korea restarted its Soviet-built nuclear facilities in 2002, it insisted on holding direct talks with Washington.

The White House resolutely refused. Calling for multinational talks that would include North Korea neighbors South Korea, Japan, and China, Washington sought to put the issue on the back burner as it prepared to go to war in the Middle East.

Moscow -- which has seen improved ties with North Korea in recent years following the Soviet collapse -- criticized Washington for provoking Pyongyang and engaging in "emotional outbursts" over the nuclear issue.

Russia alternated between chastising the White House's refusal to engage in direct talks and supporting multilateral talks in which it would play a mediating role.

With the bulk of the fighting in Iraq now over, North Korea looks set to take center stage. U.S. President George W. Bush's administration agreed to a compromise on 17 April, deciding to take part in three-way talks that would include China. They are scheduled to take place in Beijing in late April.

Russia welcomed the decision and said it is ready to take part in the settlement process.

Analysts, meanwhile, say Moscow is overplaying its influence with Pyongyang.

Nikonov agrees Russia does not have serious influence over North Korea, but he says the issue could prove to be the next testing ground for U.S.-Russia relations.

"Everything tied to North Korea could become a stumbling block in U.S.-Russia relations or, on the other hand, the issue over which both sides' position might come together," Nikonov says.

While Russia would never support a decision to undertake military action, he says both sides' positions overlap to a large degree over seeing the Korean peninsula nuclear-free.