Russia, the United Nations, and the Fate of Iraq

 Last-ditch efforts to win Russian support for a UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq are likely to fail.

 Last-ditch efforts to win Russian support for a UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq are likely to fail.  It is no longer a matter of sending a high level envoy like Condoleezza Rice to Moscow, or offering to restructure Soviet era Iraqi debt, or cutting Russian firms a piece of the action in the postwar Iraqi oil industry.  Russia has committed itself to playing a high-stakes game of chess, triangulating the United States against its erstwhile continental European allies. 

For this strategy to succeed, however, Russia cannot abandon its European partners.  The Russians have concluded that close support of the United States on the Iraq issue brings no real additional benefits that pre-existing Russian cooperation with Washington in the war on terror has already produced.  Instead, Russia feels can only gain by opposing a U.S. resolution--it will cement its ties to Paris and Berlin (especially the crucial economic ones) without provoking an overall rupture of its special relationship with Washington that has developed in the wake of 9/11. 

Russia needs Europe in some ways more than it needs the United States--after all, more than 60 percent of its trade is with Europe (and its leading trade partner is Germany, and Germany is the top holder of Russian debt).  Europe, not the United States, is the primary source of foreign capital for the Russian economy.  Despite the expansive rhetoric of U.S.-Russia partnership, it is Europe's euros, not America's dollars, that are providing the basis for Russia's development.  Closer ties with Europe is parcel of Putin's strategy to modernize Russia, and it appears that some in the Russian government believe that partnership on an equal basis is more likely with "Europe" than with the United States.  It also reflects a fundamental shift from Gregory Yavlinsky's earlier observation that the road to good relations with Europe lay through the United States--rather, it now appears that by distancing itself from Washington, Moscow can engender closer ties with the leading continental powers. 

Since Russia is no longer a "great power" in the military sense, its usefulness to Washington in any armed action against Iraq is primarily political.  For its part, Russia is seeking to project itself as a mediator, straddling the major divides in the Western alliance, and presenting itself as the trusted voice to which all sides listen.  It is ironic that it is Putin who calls Bush to brief him on talks with his German and French counterparts, not the other way around. 

We should not be surprised, therefore, if the Russians (perhaps working in tandem with the British) begin to circulate new proposals that would purport to achieve full Iraqi disarmament without requiring a war.  There are also indications that the Administration still sees value in Russia's role as a "back channel" to Baghdad and the Europeans.  Moscow assumes that the United States does want the imprimatur of the UN before undertaking any action (certainly they are aware that this is a sine qua non for London).  Thus, they have concluded that the best strategy is to slow down the U.S. drive to war in order to reassert the primacy of the UN Security Council in setting the Iraq agenda.  This is in keeping with Igor Ivanov's own view of international relations; writing in his New Russian Diplomacy, he observed:  "In the UN Security Council, Russia achieves consensus with the other permanent members of this body (the United States, Great Britain, France and China) on the majority of issues, which makes possible constructive solutions that are in the interests of the world community."  

Yet, the Russians are also running an enormous risk.  Hamstringing the Security Council may play well in Berlin and Paris, but it also strengthens sentiment in the United States that Washington should abandon the entire UN process (not to mention the cumbersome NATO requirements of unanimity) and forge ahead with an ad hoc "coalition of the willing" to deal with Saddam Hussein.  Ivanov's vision of the UN Security Council as the pinnacle of the international security architecture would be gravely compromised if the United States decides in the future not to consult with the United Nations.  Russia's veto is meaningless (and hence its importance lessened) if Washington sets a precedent by acting outside of the UN vis-à-vis Iraq. 

Washington has begun to make this clear, by drawing a clear distinction between a Russian abstention in the vote on a new Security Council resolution as opposed to a veto.  The Bush Administration can accept Russian neutrality, for neutrality is a form of indirect support.  It does not believe, however, that open opposition constitutes simply a mere "disagreement." On the contrary, it could jeopardize the entire future of the Russo-American relationship, which could collapse under the weight of mutual recriminations.  And this would be very problematic for Russia.  Despite its interest in Europe, Russia needs a partnership with the United States in a way the Western allies do not.  The commercial and economic relationship between Washington and Moscow is still very much linked to political issues.  A potential energy partnership between Russia and the United States, for example, is not something that can be insulated from politics. 

For better or for worse, Iraq has become a make-or-break issue for the Bush Administration, and the president and his senior officials will remember Russia's vote for a long time to come.  

Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.