The U.S.-Russian relationship has reached a defining moment with respect to Iraq that will force the Kremlin to make fundamental choices with far-reaching consequences. Will Russia continue to support misguided French and German efforts to prolong a fruitless inspection process-or will it seize a major opportunity for closer, and genuinely new, relations with the United States? Russian conduct during the next few weeks will answer this important question.
Supporting the United States is much more likely to advance key Russian interests and enhance the country's international prestige. Most observers believe that neither Russia nor France would be willing to oppose a new resolution authorizing force in the United Nations Security Council alone. (And in the absence of a Security Council veto, Germany's moralistic complaining is only so much hot air.) Accordingly, if Russia were to decide quickly to support the United States, it would be perceived both as delivering France (and China, which would abstain at worst) and as assuring that the Security Council continues to have a meaningful role in international affairs. This would demonstrate Moscow's ability to serve as a major international power broker.
Simultaneously, Russian support for Washington could transform the U.S.-Russian relationship and transcend old alliance structures born when Russia was a rival rather than a partner. Russian President Vladimir Putin was correct to observe that U.S.-Russian discussions of Iraq are not a bazaar-a sentiment he also expressed in discussing Moscow's support for the United States in Afghanistan after September 11. But it is a fact that his support would facilitate significant efforts by the Bush Administration to address Russian concerns in other areas and to strengthen and deepen the U.S. relationship with his country. If America and Russia prove once again to be not just partners but allies, it could also have a substantial impact on perceptions of Russia on Capitol Hill, in the media, and among the general public.
Some have suggested that Russian economic interests are behind its efforts to block U.S. military action in Iraq. Though Russia does have important economic interests at stake both in Iraq and, more broadly, in the level of world oil prices, Moscow would be in a much better position to advance those interests through support for U.S. action. Endlessly tinkering with the inspection process will not lead to the lifting of UN sanctions and postpones rather than accelerating Baghdad's eventual repayment of $8 billion in Iraqi debt to Russia and efforts by Russian companies to win lucrative oil contracts. More broadly, the notion that Moscow wants oil prices to remain high is excessively simplistic; President Putin's top economic aide has said more than once that while high oil prices help the energy industry, they damage other sectors of the Russian economy. And Russian budget surpluses (and budget assumptions) protect Moscow from a sudden drop in oil prices.
If, on the other hand, Moscow gives in to French and German attempts at seduction, it would come at the expense of important Russian interests and expose Russia to potentially greater costs than either of America's questionable "old Europe" allies is likely to face. France and Germany are already members of NATO, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization. Also unlike Russia, they trade extensively with the U.S. and are unlikely to lose much business over a political dispute. So a friendly American attitude simply makes less difference to either of them than it could to Russia. Moreover, despite increasing tension within NATO, both France and Germany enjoy much greater (if somewhat tarnished) good will in the United States than Russia. Moscow has a considerably narrower margin for error; its opposition on Iraq could profoundly affect U.S.-Russian relations even if the Bush Administration remained committed to a new and constructive relationship.
Also dangerous for Russia is the fact that French advances may not be entirely sincere. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made clear that he will not back military action even with UN approval, but Paris seems likely to take a more pragmatic approach and has rarely elected to exclude itself from important processes in the past. France's aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, is already sailing toward the region and could join the war against Iraq at the very last moment. If Paris exercises this "last minute" option, Russia could end up jumping on the bandwagon too late to win significant appreciation or benefit.
While supporting the United States on Iraq would not be politically easy for President Putin, it is certainly doable. Notwithstanding predictable grumbling from some, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a strong case against Iraq in the Security Council last week. Moscow surely also has its own intelligence about Saddam's misdeeds and knows that the Iraqi dictator is at a minimum harboring some of the people who have threatened Russia not just in Chechnya but in Moscow. Given that UN weapons inspectors seem likely to report again that Baghdad is not cooperating fully, the Kremlin would have a solid basis on which to conclude, however reluctantly, that a second UN resolution is necessary. President Putin could thus support the Bush Administration in a dignified manner, based on both its own principles and pragmatic considerations, without appearing to give in to American pressure.
The fact that Moscow's alternatives are limited may facilitate this new approach as well. Trying to stop the war only to fail (particularly if France defects) will not advance Russia's international standing, Mr. Putin's domestic position, or the country's economic interests in Iraq. Nor will remaining on the sidelines. If Russia wants to play to win, its choice is clear.