Perspective from Moscow:From the Coalition of the Willing to a Concert of Powers

Russia is prepared to be included in America's plan under certain circumstances--anytime it can gain economic dividends for the Russian side.

Who could have thought in spring 2003, riding on a wave of euphoria over the nearly bloodless victory in Iraq by coalition forces that a year later:

--the situation would be turned upside down, and events and participants now go by other names;

-- the "spoils of the victors" would be transferred from the "coalition of the willing" to the "coalition of the unwilling";

--those who were considered as targets for "regime change" are now asked to be intermediaries in helping to regulate the situation in Iraq (and here I mean Iran and possibly Syria);

--the Shiites who were earlier considered to be allies are now as dangerous to the Americans as the Iraqi Sunnis.

Russia and the other European states that opposed the war from the beginning of last year tried to strengthen the role of the UN in deciding the fate of Iraq. But the United States told the international community to "wait in the hall." The U.S. wanted the UN's vital role to legitimize the American scenario. Now Tony Blair, the herald of plans co-authored with Washington, has promised to guarantee the UN a "central role."

(This follows what the ancient Chinese philosophers termed "the transformation of things"--adjust a name in accordance with its new meaning.  And this is not the only example.)

Consider the contracts. Russia and the other European opponents of the war were frozen out from the lucrative reconstruction contracts paid for out of the American budget. Hardly anyone believed that Russia and France could preserve their concessions received under Saddam.  After all, the winner gets all, especially when the victor has shed blood for Iraqi oil. And, yes, it was said in Washington that restructuring what is the world's second largest reserve of oil would be the preserve of the new Iraqi government, but privately it made it clear that the U.S. had a grudge against the opponents of the war and would advise its proteges in Baghdad to distance themselves from those who opposed using force to remove Saddam.

So, this meant that Russia and other opponents of the war were not expected to be in Iraq.

But the situation is different now. When Moscow evacuated the majority of its specialists working in reconstructing the power grid and the industrial infrastructure, there was an audible sigh of disappointment from Washington.  Even though the Russian departure is an economic exit, it took place for the same reason--security--as the departure of others--Spain, Honduras and other "desertions" from the Iraqi field of battle.

Even allies present in Iraq are not actually fighting -- only Great Britain is a steady and reliable partner in this regard--but everyone pretends for the sake of the U.S. that NATO is providing a strong base of support. But it is now clear--there is no such base.

I was personally surprised that a year ago, well-informed people in the United States--including people from the State Department--were persuaded that the real motives for the Iraq war were the officially-stated ones--the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and the link between Iraq and terrorism.  The real geopolitical motives--reforming the Middle East, securing oil--were not even mentioned.

Yet no matter how cynically people now may evaluate all of this, even amidst the background of mounting losses in Iraq, it has turned out that the delay in opening up Iraqi oil has been very economically beneficial for Russia. And not only because it turns out (that due to high prices) several additional billion dollars have been added to the national budget.  It has encouraged the West to be more active in cooperating with Russia within the framework of the energy dialogue.

And the political dividends accruing to Russia for "restraining" the United States are also evident.

Russia's importance as a regional broker is increasing, both in Middle Eastern affairs and in other contexts, especially the post-Soviet space. Everywhere the U.S. must cope with the fact of having Iraq "weighing down" its feet, and so has to consider Russia's influence.

And the quasi-alliance of the "coalition of the unwilling"--France, Germany and Russia--is reviving, especially now that the weakest link in the "trio of the Azores"--Spain--has moved to join them.

Last weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered a speech at the annual assembly of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy--an analog to America's Council on Foreign Relations. He reiterated what his predecessor Igor Ivanov had said to this gathering a year earlier. Moscow is not interested in defeating the U.S. in Iraq, and the Russian government is sincerely willing to stabilize the situation in Iraq as soon as possible.

But Lavrov noted that stabilization should occur within the context of undertaking the transition to Iraqi sovereignty under UN auspices. And he expressed the hope that the United States has learned the lesson of the Iraq war and revised its doctrine of "pre-emptive war", moving away from unilateralism toward coordinating its approach toward the world with Europe, including Russia.

Hearing this, I recalled the comments made by a leading Russian expert last year at this conference (speaking off the record in order not to damage the warm relations he has with American think-tanks), that the ideal situation for Russia would be for the United States to win a military victory in Iraq but suffer a political defeat.