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

April 21, 2004 Topic: Security Tags: DiplomacyGulf WarIraq War

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.

And here the new head of the Foreign Ministry is in essence speeding up this political defeat, offering a solution to the Iraqi knot, proposing a conference under the aegis of the United Nations, with the participation of all political forces in Iraq and all of Iraq's neighbors, to develop a compromise plan for regulating the situation in Iraq. And this would effectively derail America's original intent, and deal a significant blow to George Bush's own chances for re-election.

This, in essence, would be a targeted defeat for the United States, where it would continue to maintain its troops in Iraq, but under the UN flag, and where the interests of all parties in Iraq would be realized, and, in so doing, damage the goals that the Bush Administration originally strove to achieve in Iraq.

This includes how the Iraqi oil industry would be restructured. This will be undertaken not by the obvious victors, but by those who a year ago were considered to be the losers. It is the citizens of countries that did not participate in the coalition who are not be kidnapped and killed in Iraq. It seems that only they--and their companies--can feel safe enough to work in Iraq in the coming years.

Alexei Pushkov, the noted Russian television journalist, also delivered an address at this conference, repeating an idea that is being realized under Vladimir Putin. Russia should have its own political course, balancing between the world's major powers but entering into an alliance with none. This is a view that the liberal State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov has characterized as "excrement floating in the water." In the context of the progress of world history, Russia should realize in practice its choice for the West.

However, in the context of Iraq, the West itself is divided as far as issues of war and peace are concerned. And so in these circumstances, Russia can realize important dividends, following the tactic I discussed in a previous essay of shooting goals into the nets of one's opponents when they are in a weakened state. (See "The Russian Strategy: Tactics of the Roving Forward," March 26, 2003, at

Here Moscow can comfortably re-arrange its position in the world on the back of American efforts. A post-imperial Russia doesn't like American domination, especially in Russia's periphery, where American enforcement of its agenda contradicts Russian interests. But Russia is prepared to be included in America's plan under certain circumstances--anytime it can gain economic dividends for the Russian side.

So in the future, in some cases, if Russia's interests are taken into account early on, Russia's almost-reflexive opposition to America's peace-keeping or "modernization" efforts around the world can be replaced by Moscow's involvement, where it can offer its own down-to-earth assessments.

How often this is going to happen is going to depend on the U.S. ability to move away from unilateral actions and depending on "coalitions of the willing" in order to form a new "concert of powers" where each participant knows why it is involved and what role it is expected to play.

During the second Putin Administration, there is a strong likelihood that Russian behavior in foreign policy will be even more pragmatic.  Whenever an American action is beneficial to Russia, Putin will be involved in it one way or another.

However, it needs to be stressed all the time that when this happens, Russia will be doing this not because "we are following America" or because we are under America's spell, but because we believe it to be in our own interests.

And so, the next time there is something like the "Azores Trio", instead of getting an unreliable Spain, it will be possible for the United States to snare a reliable Russia--a Russia that is not afraid of explosions in the metro or losing its own soldiers, or fighting even when it is not clear with whom or for what.