TCS Daily

War and Peace (of mind)

By Dominic Basulto - February 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Colin Powell's UN speech, while containing overwhelming proof of Iraq's continuing intransigence in dealing with UN weapons inspectors, has done little to sway political opinion in some key European capitals and in Moscow. Already, Russia - as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council - has thus far shown little willingness to sanction a U.S. military attack on Iraq. While Russian president Putin noted in late January that he would be willing to relax his insistence on a purely diplomatic solution, there have been few tangible signs of support. There have been a few words in a speech delivered at a regional summit meeting in Ukraine, some backroom negotiations with Baghdad diplomats about a possible ouster of Hussein, a few naval ships dispatched to the Gulf, but the underlying response has been "Give the weapons inspectors more time." The basic question, then, for the Bush administration is clear: How much longer should it wait for countries such as Russia to climb on board?

The problem is not one of evidence. Certainly, the U.S. has made the case for aggressive military intervention in Iraq. The problem is also not one of failing to outline the potential risks of allowing Saddam Hussein to acquire weapons of mass destruction. After years of protracted conflict in Chechnya and terrorism in the center of Moscow, Russia is all too aware of the risks of allowing terrorist-friendly regimes to support radical fundamentalists throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

Finally, the problem is not one of will - Russia is not "Old Europe." In fact, Putin has not blanched at the prospect of intensifying the conflict in Chechnya or at "rubbing out the Chechens in their outhouses." In fact, the chief Kremlin spokesman recently noted that Russia did not need a "smoking gun" in Iraq - it only needed "a gun."

The problems are two-fold: Russia's economic interests in Iraq (which, not surprisingly, involve oil) and Russia's desire for a global multi-polar security configuration.

Russia has always maintained economic interests in Iraq, and is eagerly eyeing the opportunity to expand its role as a major player in Iraq's oil and gas sector. A recent article in the Moscow Times noted that Russia is taking a strategic look at Iraq's 73 oil fields, only 49 of which are currently being developed. Within the past two months, there has been a flurry of negotiations between Baghdad and representatives from Russian oil companies such as LUKoil and Zarubezhneft over the status of existing oil fields in a post-Hussein regime. Moreover, Iraq still owes Russia over $8 billion in Soviet-era debts. A war-torn Iraq would be, in the eyes of Russian negotiators, not exactly a creditworthy borrower. Finally, Russian trading companies have played an increasingly lucrative role in the "oil-for-food" deals brokered by the UN and are unwilling to forego these economic arrangements in the name of war.

Stripped of its superpower status years ago, Russia has lobbied for a multi-polar security configuration in the attempt to remain an equal partner with the U.S. Russia still considers that it plays a more important strategic role than the nations of "New Europe" - it is not a Hungary, Czech Republic or Poland that would be willing to sign a Wall Street Journal letter ("United We Stand") on the merits of U.S. intervention in Iraq. As part of the so-called Putin Doctrine, Russia's foreign policy can be summarized by four key tenets: a pro-Western orientation, pragmatism, a refusal to engage in Soviet-style imperialism, and stability in the bordering countries of Central Asia. In short, Russia is quite content to let the U.S. squirm and then hop in at the most expedient moment to preserve stability in the Persian Gulf or even to emerge as the hero by offering a form of last-minute diplomacy. In doing so, it will present a pro-Western face to the world, while hunting for possible concessions in a global balance of power game overseen by the UN.

Viewed within this prism, it is clear that Russia's seat on the UN Security Council is a prized possession - it allows Russia to sway opinion of key U.S. allies while also forcing Washington leaders to traipse to Moscow every now and then. In fact, in mid-January, a delegation of U.S. officials did exactly that. According to Russian newspapers, the discussions centered on a distinct tit-for-tat: Iraq for Chechnya. Later, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage let slip that the U.S. had sanctioned Russian military activity in the no-man's land of the Pankisi Gorge, which abuts Georgia and Chechnya. No doubt, more trips to Moscow will bring more demands for concessions.

Thus, the answer to the question of "How much longer should the U.S. wait?" is clear. Not long. Bargaining with Moscow will not lead to a real change of heart by the Putin administration. In fact, further parley with the Kremlin will only lead to a host of unacceptable demands - carte blanche in Chechnya, an expanded role for Russia in Europe's new security arrangement, and concessions on the future control of Iraq's oil assets. Going it alone is not a palatable option, but it may be the only option left for the Bush administration if it is not prepared to pay the high price of courting world public opinion in capitals such as Moscow.

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