Bush, Putin and Saddam

Since President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, the United States and Iraq have again been on a collision course.

Since President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, the United States and Iraq have again been on a collision course. But Washington has no longer to take all-out Russian opposition for granted, a strategic transformation made possible by a series of changes in Russian politics and foreign policy.

The first of these changes, of course, is the strong rapprochement between Russia and the United States, and the unprecedented, unequivocal endorsement of U.S. military action that came with it. That President Putin would also distance Russia from Iraq was made possible by a second change-his complete authority over Russian foreign policy, based on his extraordinary personal popularity and reputation for a bristly attentiveness to Russian national interests. Yeltsin believed that denouncing every American military action made him look tough; Putin sees that ineffectual public tantrums would make him look weak.

Similarly, when Putin says Russian diplomacy must serve economic interests, no one accuses him of putting foreign policy up for sale. He enables low motives to win respect as high principle. When American pressure on Iraq resumed, Russian spokesmen started issuing public reminders of Russia's economic stake in the matter. Iraq had never before been bargained over like this, but U.S. officials got the hint. Russia, they promised, would be rewarded for support.

The broader evolution of Russia's economic elite has also pushed policy toward accommodation with the United States. Riding a four-year surge in oil production, leading Russian business figures now say that their prime goal is to gain access to Western markets; they profess to be tired of being bottom-feeders dependent on semi-illicit ties with the world's rogues. For businessmen with such an outlook, Putin's alignment with Bush did not sacrifice the Russian corporate bottom line-it strengthened it.

Together these changes ruled out the reflexive pro-Saddam stance Russia had adopted in the past. Saddam might face defeat, but Putin would not let it become his defeat as well. Some commentators even wrote of the risks for Russia in standing by Iraq too long. Russia, they said, might find itself empty-handed and isolated when the war was over: what kind of hard-boiled defense of the national interest would that be?

As such talk showed, the hardening of U.S. policy against Iraq had narrowed the benefits that Baghdad could offer Moscow. Yes, by taking advantage of a crisis it might be possible to push Russian-Iraqi trade a little higher, but the larger economic interests that Russian officials have been invoking-the repayment of Iraqi debt to Russia and the long-term development of Iraq's energy potential-can best be advanced by working with Washington, not with Ba‘athi Baghdad. (In fact, Saddam cannot bestow these benefits even if war is averted, since they depend on the lifting of sanctions, to which the U.S. administration will clearly not agree.)

Much of Russia's recent handling of Iraq has seemed to follow from such calculations. Putin has avoided personal identification with Iraq, declined to meet with Saddam's longtime deputy Tariq Aziz and authorized official contact with Iraqi opposition figures. At the end of last summer, when Iraqi diplomats began touting a draft ten-year economic agreement, Russian officials quietly declined to sign. Meanwhile, Russian oil companies talked up cooperation with the United States. From LUKoil's CEO, Vagit Alekperov, came the (probably false) claim that the United States had promised to honor the contract he had signed with Iraq in 1997; and his rival at Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, urged the Russian government to get assurances that Washington would prevent too big a drop in postwar oil prices. Putin actually joked that he was not trying to squeeze more out of the West in some sort of "Oriental bazaar." No one believed him.

The most telling sign that Russia does not want to go down with Saddam was, of course, its vote for UN Security Council Resolution 1441, warning Iraq of "serious consequences" if it did not meet its disarmament obligations. After two months of diplomatic stalling, and of seeming to want above all to stay America's hand, Russia positioned itself to be able to blame Saddam if war broke out. Between 1997 and 1999 Russia's abstentions and endless haggling in the Security Council had clearly encouraged Baghdad to flout its obligations, knowing that Moscow would continue to front for it no matter what. Joining a unanimous Security Council vote in 2002 sent a completely different message: You're on your own.

Yet for all the seeming clarity of this message, Russia will face continuing choices as Iraq's confrontation with the United States unfolds. And Moscow will have many motives to try to tie the Bush Administration down. There will be the unavoidably gray areas of UNMOVIC's mandate and findings. There will be those who say that Russia can't defend its authority in the UN Security Council-a last residue of Soviet great-power status-by supporting the United States, only by checking it. There will be the example set by France, Germany and other European critics of U.S. policy. There will be the chance to wheedle concessions from Washington on Georgia and Chechnya. Putin may even believe that protracted haggling will further bolster his image as a tough advocate of Russian interests.