The air strikes against Iraq have placed U.S.-Russian relations under serious strain and exposed Russian weakness and frustration.
President Boris Yeltsin said the United States and Great Britain have “crudely violated the United Nations charter and universally accepted principles of international law.” Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an Arabist who in 1990 argued (unsuccessfully) against Soviet support for the use of force against Saddam Hussein, denounced the strikes publicly and in a phone call to Vice President Al Gore. The foreign and defense ministers cut short trips abroad and returned to Moscow, and the foreign minister recalled Russia’s ambassadors to London and Washington.
But strong words aside, Russia lacks the tools to deter the United States diplomatically or militarily. Even before the air strikes, Defense Minister Ivan Sergeev, seeking additional funds for the armed forces, told parliamentarians that one third of the country’s weaponry is not combat-ready, 60 percent of its strategic missiles are twice past their service life, 70 percent of naval vessels need repair and two-thirds of military aircraft cannot fly. In 1998, said Sergeev, the armed forces acquired “not a single nuclear submarine, tank, combat plane, helicopter or piece of artillery.” Conditions are deplorable, he said. Many military families live in poverty, suicides are “frequent” and about 19,000 officers under thirty years of age left the service during the year.
Many members of the Duma and much of the press linked the attack to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called the attack “an act of international terrorism.” Legislators seem certain to reject appeals from Prime Minister Primakov to ratify the START II arms-limitation treaty with the United States and to grant Sergeev’s appeal for a 1999 defense budget of at least 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product. Most important, the Duma seems likely to call for an end to Russian participation in UN economic sanctions against Iraq. That would mark the final unraveling of the tattered coalition that Primakov opposed at the beginning of the decade.