Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 4

A fortnight of intense diplomatic maneuvering in the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush’s January 29 State-of-the-Union speech was highlighted by a long interview President Vladimir Putin granted to the Wall Street Journal on February 11. The interview constituted the Kremlin’s first official reaction to the Bush address, and made clear Moscow’s discomfort with what the U.S. president indicated will be the primary thrust of Washington’s future antiterror campaign–namely, the targeting of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” which threatens American security.

Bush administration officials and the U.S. president himself appeared to indicate in the days immediately following Putin’s interview, moreover, that Washington is committing itself to a campaign aimed at the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Those indications suggest that Iraq will now assume a central place in Russian-U.S. deliberations. For the Kremlin, the stakes are high. Moscow has long been Iraq’s main backer on the UN Security Council, and billions of dollars in potential revenue for Russian companies are riding on the success or failure of the Kremlin’s Iraq policy. The issue is also crucial to Russia’s standing as a major player in international affairs. Washington’s use of a partnership with Moscow to prosecute the U.S. war in Afghanistan conferred considerable influence on Russia. But a U.S. willingness to go it alone in Iraq would sideline Moscow while foiling the Kremlin’s more general effort to enmesh U.S. antiterror operations within the confines of a broader multilateral alliance.

Against this background, Putin walked a careful line in his Wall Street Journal interview. He made repeatedly clear Moscow’s desire to preserve friendly relations with Washington while at the same time setting out Russia’s disagreements with the principles underlying Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. Those disagreements centered on two interrelated concerns. One of them amounted to a rejection of the notion that the “blacklisting” of Iraq, Iran and North Korea would best serve the goal of countering international terrorism. The other, as suggested above, involved an appeal to the United States to work in close cooperation with Moscow and the world community–via the UN Security Council–as it implements its antiterrorist plans.

Putin’s message was trumpeted by other top Russian officials in the days that followed. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for example, used a visit by Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim on February 11 to again warn against any expansion of the U.S. antiterror war to other nations without absolute proof of their involvement in terrorist activities and without the involvement of the UN Security Council. Russia’s Foreign Ministry followed up on February 13 with a statement expressing its concern over what it suggested was Washington’s weakening of the original international antiterrorist coalition. The Foreign Ministry also accused the United States indirectly of using the antiterrorist war to rekindle what it described as “Cold War ideas and geopolitical confrontation.”

The growing importance of Iraq to Russian-U.S. relations was further highlighted over the past fortnight by reports that a pair of late-January visits to Moscow by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz had been the cause of new tensions between Russian and Iraqi authorities. With the increasing U.S. pressure on Iraq serving as the backdrop, Baghdad had apparently objected to intensifying Russian demands that Iraq agree to accept the return of UN arms inspectors. Russian and U.S. negotiators, meanwhile, met in Geneva in early February to discuss a British-U.S. proposal–the so-called “smart sanctions” plan–by which the UN sanctions regime against Iraq would be reshaped to allow more humanitarian goods into the country. Few details of the talks were made public, but both sides suggested that they had managed to narrow their differences.