A Most Dangerous Game: Russian Gambles, American Distractions

March 26, 2003

A Most Dangerous Game: Russian Gambles, American Distractions

The U.

The U.S. State Department has addressed a protest to Moscow in connection with the alleged discovery that Iraq has received supplies of weapons technology in contravention of UN sanctions.  Washington maintains that it has made representations about this through diplomatic channels over the course of the last several months.  Now, it has finally been decided to give these accusations a public character, through the established system of "leaks" to the press. 

In Moscow, of course, the accusations concerning the sale of weapons to Iraq were categorically denied.  Some experts have not discounted this possibility in principle.  For example, the retired commander of the Air Force, General Anatoly Kornukov, in an interview with the Interfax news agency, did not rule out the possibility that a supply of Russian radio-electronic jamming units could have found its way to Iraq through a third-party country despite a government ban. 

That clouds have begun to form on the horizon of the Russian-American relationship became very clear this past Saturday, when the Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, speaking at the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy  (CDFP) [editor's note: a prestigious organization akin to the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States], immediately took the opportunity to square account by declaring, "We have done nothing illegal in connection with this country [Iraq]."  But then he slipped up, saying, "it is possible that private companies have done this, but this would be the exception."  Interestingly, this little tidbit was not included in the official text that was reproduced the following day on the Foreign Ministry's website. 

It is difficult to say how sure (or not) Moscow is that Russian companies did not deliver completed weapons systems to Iraq.  The country can be compared to a bordello where it is possible to work up deals like this, as it suits people--in principle, anything goes.  "There are many businessmen who would like to warm their hands by selling weapons.  Before, there were facts about illegal attempts to allegedly transfer military hardware to governments in Africa and Asia.  But then, in conjunction with the FSB (the Federal Security Service), we have decisively cut down on this," observed Kornukov. 

However, now there has been a ferocious outcry from Washington.  The Russian president has decided to deliver a blow, guaranteeing to punish any violators of the UN sanctions regime.  If, of course, any can be apprehended.   It didn't bother Putin to speak with President Bush on Tuesday; however, Kremlin sources indicated that Putin struck a "very adversarial note."

Observers in Moscow are united in their belief that the primary reason for the current spat between Russia and the United States is a product of the dissatisfaction of the White House with its relations with Moscow, strengthened by the first military setbacks faced by the coalition in Iraq.  The final straw was its stubborn resistance to the realization of American plans for war with Iraq.  It was not enough that earlier we opposed war; we have decided to continue this into the future.  In particular, Moscow has already promised that it will veto any attempt to legitimize American military action and any of its results in the United Nations. 

In answer to my question, as to how and in what manner this will be carried out, Foreign Minister Ivanov said:  "Russia will be very carefully paying attention to all subsequent resolutions of the UN Security Council concerning Iraq, and will stand against any attempt to directly or tacitly legitimize any military operation or any subsequent steps, which will strengthen a reconstruction of Iraq 'American-style.'" 

In Ivanov's words, Moscow would seek under those circumstances to add a "legitimization" of Russia's economic interests in Iraq into any subsequent resolutions of the UN Security Council.  This means in concrete terms that in the event of "regime change", all contracts concluded under Saddam Hussein would remain in force, as well as a recognition of Iraq's $8 billion debt to Russia. 

And so, Russia refuses to give America the right to legitimize its goals and interests in Iraq.  However, in the event of a change--for instance, the establishment of a pro-American regime in Baghdad--it may be possible to add, through the UN, some guarantees for the consideration of Russian interests. 

It is difficult to say how all of this can be coordinated with international law.  Yet, if a regime is established in Iraq that Russia deems "illegitimate", and moreover, if Russia does everything possible to prevent this from taking place, how is it possible under these conditions to suddenly add such guarantees for itself?  Who, concretely, would  safeguard these guarantees? The UN?  It does not appear that Washington will turn over supreme authority for the reconstruction of Iraq to the UN. 

On the diplomatic front it is already clear that new, heavy battles will be aroused in the Security Council.  It is doubtful whether Moscow's similar approach (as before) would be able to produce mutual understanding between Russia and the United States. 

Washington is irritated by Moscow's confidence that "the Americans will eventually have to come back to the UN", a confidence bolstered by the assumption that there will be no quick "blitzkrieg" in Iraq.  The Russians believe that this first attempt to unilaterally restructure the world "American style", without the mandate and participation of the UN, will fail.

Russia has a different understanding than America as to the goals that led to the creation of the anti-terrorist coalition.  For the Americans, it was simply an "episode", a fortuitous and timely chance to establish a unipolar world under American hegemony.  Moscow, for its part, does not view this coalition, in the formulation disseminated by the Foreign Ministry, as "a prototype of a new system of global security, which permits a joint approach to such issues, as the spread of the weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, drug trafficking, regional conflicts, and to solve a whole host of other complex problems."  This difference opens up a path for the two powers to be further divided, not only on the basis of values, but concrete interests as well. Washington wants this coalition to function as a disciplined "bloc", not a compote distilled from the complementary and non-complementary interests of the various players. 

Speaking to the CFDP, Ivanov noted: "How this crisis is regulated determines the principles that will establish security and the global order for the coming years and decades."  In general, this is a very streamlined phrase.  But it can imply an even narrower scenario for the way the situation will develop, more than just a simple trade (of the type: you respect my interests, I'll take yours into account).  Moscow has come to the conclusion, however, that Washington is not prepared or now is not even able to guarantee Russian interests in Iraq (the contracts, repayment of the debt, and so on).

In the opinion of one of the experts of the CFDP, Moscow is expecting that the United States, having won the war, will lose the peace--and that the primary threat to Russia is not the United States itself, but "ineffective leadership" on the part of America.  No one wants to see America defeated--it is the current governing elite of the United States--the Bush team--that they want to see lose, an attitude that prevails especially in the Russian media.  (For example,  a recent article in the Russian business newspaper Ekspert (by S. Mamaev) declared: "Bush's cowboy team has been shown to be a gang of swindlers." 

It is important to point out, however, that this attitude is not decisively supported at the highest levels in the Kremlin.  Putin cannot demonstrate any similar sentiments that currently are burning up the airwaves of the Russian media--that even if Russia cannot engage in a frontal confrontation with America, active opposition on a broad political front is desirable.  Partisans of this approach want to harass the Americans--say by holding up ratification of the strategic arms accord (as this article went to press, the Russian Foreign Minister was announcing that there would be an indefinite postponement for ratification), or provoke other "blisters" while America is tied down in Iraq.  They aren't worried that this would be a recipe for the American hawks to call for the same with regards to relations with Russia. 

No, the Kremlin has chosen a different tactic, a softer line, constantly repeating, "We are now partners with the Americans, near-allies and friends, but we have called attention to their mistakes, which create difficulties that impact the world economy, global stability, and success of reforms in Russia, etc.  We advised them not to attack Iraq and become bogged down as happened to us in Chechnya; we think they should concentrate on respecting more the interests of their partners in the anti-terrorist coalition, and so on.  In general, we think it would be wiser for the White House to be a little less 'one-sided'," and so on. 

And this is Moscow's principled stand, from which no deviation is possible.  Nor is it useful to provoke a confrontation with the most influential wing--the hawks--of the Bush Administration (even though Ivanov calls them "our opponents"), which risks provoking an even deeper split within the international community.