TCS Daily

Abstinence Is the Best Policy

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

If there is one defining difference between Russian foreign policy and Soviet foreign policy, it is a complete absence of any overarching ideology. Instead of an emphasis on, say, democracy or human rights, there is only a bottom-line pragmatism and an overwhelming emphasis on "international stability."

As the U.S. girds for possible war, Russian diplomats have been scurrying to the Middle East, Western Europe, Washington, China and the Balkans in an attempt to stall and delay a new UN Security Council resolution that would all but authorize a U.S.-led military solution to the Iraq problem. With signs that the U.S. has won over Spain and Bulgaria to its coalition, Russia has pushed its diplomatic efforts into overdrive, with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov recently threatening a "muscular veto" if the U.S. continues to press the attack.

Yet there is another course of action that would be far more accommodating to U.S. and Russian economic and foreign policy interests: an abstention rather than a veto in the UN Security Council. After all, the goal of Russia is to preserve "international stability" and protect its economic (that is, oil) interests in Iraq. Currently, Moscow is in a cat-and-mouse game with Washington, attempting to protect its Iraqi oil interests while increasing the legitimacy of its anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya. In fact, a Moscow Times article characterized a recent diplomatic overture by Russian diplomats in Washington as "trawling for deals." The effort to stall a UN resolution prompted President Putin to go on a 3-day mission to Bulgaria - the first visit by a Russian leader to Bulgaria in ten years. Driving a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, though, will do little to advance either of Russia's primary goals.

Most importantly, Russia's borders are quite possibly, the world's most dangerous. Stretching across twelve time zones, Russia is flanked (West to East) by the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and North Korea. Russia's fear is that trouble in the Middle East could spill over to any of these world 'hot spots.' Thus, a threat to veto to U.S. action in Iraq should be perceived more as a desperate attempt to keep from stirring a very volatile pot rather than any differences in opinion about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. However, a veto in the Security Council would all but guarantee that the U.S. and its European allies would offer little or no support if, say, the Chechen military struggle escalates or the North Korean missile crisis spirals out of control on Russia's eastern border.

Moreover, a Russian veto in the UN Security Council would lead to a dramatically lower profile role for Russian oil companies in post-war Iraq. With crude oil trading close to the $40 mark and its foreign currency coffers bulging, the Russian government and oil companies such as LUKOil have little or no desire to risk a steep decline in the price of oil from a war in Iraq. Russia's diplomats and oligarchs have spent a considerable amount of time and effort in establishing links with the Iraqi oil industry and are probably pressuring Putin to avert military action. No doubt, Russia's oil barons are a powerful lot. Forbes, which recently released its list of the world's richest billionaires, noted that 10 new Russian oil billionaires have been created in the past 12 months - presumably from the steep run-up in oil prices worldwide.

Looking to the long-term, though, a stable Iraq is in the interests of these Russian oil oligarchs. First of all, a stable and disarmed Iraq means that oil pipeline projects and oil development projects in the region will be less at risk from Middle East instability. If anything, Russian oil companies will benefit more from a stable Iraq - and from the ability of the U.S. to exact a number of lucrative concessions from any new post-Saddam leadership. Quite simply, a price for crude oil of close to $40 is artificial and unsustainable: Russia's oil lobby must recognize that long-term economic interests are more important than short-term economic gain.

A Russian veto in the UN Security Council makes little or no sense. Far better for Russia to abstain from a vote, gain additional U.S. goodwill and focus on a constructive role in a post-war Iraq. Time and time again, President Putin has stated that the U.S. is the "key relationship" for Russia in the post-9/11 world. Now is the time to prove it. In foreign policy, sometimes abstinence is the best policy.

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