American-Russian relations: cold wind from Iraq

Article published on Sept. 30, 2002
community published
Article published on Sept. 30, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

After the honeymoon born of the marriage of reason after September 11th, American- Russian relations are no longer settled. At stake, the bombings of Iraq which Moscow is actively trying to avoid, as well as other strategic and mercantile motives.

The international consensus surrounding the American cause resulting from September 11th and relative to the coalition against terrorism is in difficulty. From a certain number of states of the European Union to Arab countries and even in China and Russia, protests in opposition to an American intervention into Iraq have multiplied over the course of the last few days.

The reasons vary, according to the States, from the consideration of uncertainties over Saddam Hussein (Western Europe, United Kingdom excluded), to the risk of destabilisation of the region (border states), without forgetting the traditional opposition of certain powers, with China at the forefront. According to Russia, her position poses numerous issues. After the attacks of last September, Moscow, nevertheless still today Washington's number one enemy, had not been absent from the roll call launched by the White House, not by a long way: Russian president Vladimir Putin was the first Head of State to convey his condolences to Bush junior. Whilst the cinders of the World Trade Centre were still warm, we were attending the birth of a new Russian-American friendship, which continued to develop over the course of the months that followed. Certainly sealed on the altar of Chechnya and too politically marked to be sincere, this closening has not less become the most important of the post- Soviet period. Beyond the sensitive dossiers- the expansion of NATO and (dis)armament- the Cold War seemed well and truly buried. Today, the possibility of an attack against Iraq comes to obscure the Russian-American honeymoon.

Return to the 'Kosovo syndrome'?

For the first time since September 2001, the toll of the Kremlin bell diverges from that of the White House: the Iraqi proposition of a resumption of cooperation with the UN has already been practically rejected by the Americans, whilst at the same time was being favourably welcomed by the Russians. More precisely, the invitation to visit Baghdad issued by Saddam Hussein to UN experts, perceived as a simple 'diversion manoeuvre' by the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is, on the contrary, 'an important step towards the regulation of the crisis by political and diplomatic means in the name of the Security Council' for Moscow.

Will it aid just as much a return of the 'Kosovo syndrome'? At the time of this conflict, the international scene was more widely marked by the bipolarity inherited from the Cold War period; Russia was lined up on the side of her traditional allies, whilst Western countries, aligned behind the leader of the 'free world' used to send part of their army to combat the 'Serbian enemy.' Today the distribution of actors on the international stage is no longer the same: the partisans of a military attack are fundamentally English-speaking (United States, Great Britain) and not born of the traditional East-West division. The struggle against Islamic terrorism (common enemy to two states, embodied by the Chechens from one side, the disciples of Osama Bin Laden on the other), the common interest carried to China (rising power to be monitored by Washington, stake of power for Russia, which intends on making use of the Empire of the Levant to assert its role as a Eurasian power), the agreement concerning the struggle against weapons of mass destruction (in aid, let's say in passing, of the development of conventional arms) the 'containment' of Europe and the oil stake (between the other countries around the Caspian Sea) are also from dossiers which sealed the 'Russian-American friendship'. The signs of the rapprochement were too symbolic to be swept aside without a second thought.

What are we to otherwise to think of Bush's journey to Saint Petersburg and, more emblematically, of the new NATO-Russia counsel? If the new docility of Moscow is a godsend for George Bush, Putin has far more to win in this strategic alliance. Beyond an unlimited credit of freedom concerning the management of the Chechen issue, is the possibility of replaying a role of the first order on the international stage, which the Russian president is in the process of negotiating. Russia is therefore neither able nor wants to sell off its closening with the United States, no matter what the pretext. If she [Russia] opposes the bombing of Iraq, without hesitating to thwart the US, it is because the game is worth the candle. Is it still about old Soviet reflexes, the friends of yesterday prevailing over those of today?

2.3 milliard dollars of contracts, excluding oil.

To some extent perhaps, for the Middle East, beyond its traditional interests- geostrategic position and oil power- and new interests which it has incited for the US since September 11th, is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a zone carrying the stigmas of the Cold War, in the era when the Arab world was in the pay of the Soviet Union, and the Israeli State a protégé of the United States, without forgetting the Baas party, whose Iraqi leader is of Marxist tenure. According to this first reading Vladimir Putin would be loyal by tradition to his former ally, Saddam Hussein. And that is not all. In the name of connections that long ago united the Soviet Union with Iraq, post-Soviet Russia remains Iraq's strategic ally, notably in the oil domain. The president, Saddam Hussein declared time and time again that he was giving priority to Russia and Russian companies, notably in the oil sector. More widely, numerous agreements of economic cooperation were passed between the two states, whilst new contracts are poised to be signed. According to Mikhail Bogdanov, director of the Middle East department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia signed a contract last year with Iraq to the value of 2.3 milliard dollars, an amount that does not take oil transactions into account. Moscow and Baghdad allegedly observed the signature of 67 agreements of cooperation in the oil, gas, transport and communication sectors by the end of April 2003. If one adds to the fact that Iraq already has a debt of 8 milliard dollars to Russia that it is unable to repay because of economic blockades, it goes without saying that the economic aspect is certainly what explains best the opposition by Moscow of a bombing of Iraq. Moreover, the US is aware of this, their ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow declared that his country was prepared to compensate Russia in the case of an attack against Iraq.

Difficulties ahead

Account taken of sums engaged, Russia is not looking only to avoid military intervention by Washington. She [Russia] wants a relaxation of the regime of sanctions against Iraq, and it is precisely this to which she has been devoted for several months, by attempting to persuade Iraq by diplomatic missions to accept the return of UN disarmament inspectors in exchange for a lifting of the embargo. Russia had something to celebrate about the invitation issued by Saddam Hussein to UN experts; it was about a beautiful diplomatic victory. She has something to hold against George Bush for his over willingness to reject Baghdad's proposition. If one adds to this opposition of interests concerning Iraq, the sensitive situation of Bouchehrs nuclear power station now under construction, financed by Russian capital, and what the US and Israel are still allegedly prepared to bomb in the name of the struggle against the states of the 'axis of evil' and the new doctrine of the American administration of so-called preventative action which it incorporates. One has something to strongly doubt about the longevity of the Bush-Putin couple. If one analyses on a larger scale the state of their relation, the outlook is far more pessimistic: opposition of interests regarding the choice of pipelines ahead of transporting the oil from the Caspian Sea (the West favouring Turkey and Russia their own territory), tension in the Caucuses- notably in Georgia- linked to the progression of American influence (expansion of NATO, establishment of military bases).

Whatever happens to relations between Moscow and Washington in the coming months, one is far from the passion after September 11th or in the fire of action. Putin will not hesitate to allow the Americans to settle in the newly independent states of Central Asia. It remains to be known whether the American retreat will happen as easily as its advance, in other words, if after a marriage in great pomp, one will attend a velvet divorce, one has a right to doubt it.