Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 99

Just three days before Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to hold summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia yesterday played host to lawmakers from the country that many see as the next target in Washington’s antiterror war: Iraq. The visit underscored some of the ambiguities that remain in Russian-U.S. relations despite recent agreements on a strategic arms cut plan and NATO-Russian cooperation. Improved Russian-U.S. ties were demonstrated last week when Moscow threw critical support behind a U.S. plan to revamp the UN sanctions regime on Iraq. The move allowed the UN Security Council to approve the measure, and came despite long-time Russian support for Iraq and Moscow’s earlier opposition to the U.S.-backed sanctions plan. At the same time, however, Moscow is clearly seeking to maintain friendly ties with Baghdad. That is despite the twin facts that Iraq has been declared a founding (and perhaps the leading) member of the Bush administration’s “axis of evil,” and Iraqi-Russian ties have in the past been the source of friction between Washington and Moscow.

These countervailing tendencies were evident in yesterday’s talks in Moscow, where an Iraqi delegation led by Abdel-Razzak al-Hashimi met with various Russian officials under the auspices of an Iraqi-Russian friendship and cooperation forum. Mikhail Bogdanov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East department, used the occasion to defend Moscow’s support of the new sanctions plan and to rebuff Iraqi complaints that the plan would prove harmful to both the Iraqi economy and bilateral Iraqi-Russian trade. Indeed, Bogdanov argued that the new plan, which is designed to free up the flow of civilian goods into Iraq (while tightening controls over defense related items), would actually regularize and thereby facilitate Iraqi-Russian trade.

In recent years Russian companies have earned billions of dollars in trade with Iraq thanks to contracts signed under the auspices of the UN’s “oil-for-food” program. Iraqi officials had over the past several years threatened to curtail or terminate these contracts if Moscow failed to back Baghdad in UN Security Council deliberations on the sanctions and other issues. Iraq repeated these threats as Russia and the United States moved toward an accommodation late last year and early this year on the new sanctions plan, but this time to no avail. Closer Russian-U.S. relations in the wake of September 11 and a decision by Washington to free up hundreds of millions of dollars in additional Iraqi-Russian trade deals–deals that had been frozen by the UN–provided sufficient motivation for Moscow to line up behind Washington this time around.

But another apparent reason for Moscow’s support, this one also highlighted in yesterday’s Iraq-Russian talks, suggested that Moscow and Washington could yet find themselves at loggerheads again over Iraq. That is Moscow’s claim, which it conveyed anew to the Iraqi officials yesterday, that Russia backed the so-called “smart sanctions” plan in part out of a belief that implementation of the plan might ultimately help to divert the United States from a military attack on Iraq. Russian diplomats have consistently urged that tensions around Iraq be resolved by political rather than military means, and another Foreign Ministry official made that point yesterday. Yury Fedotov, director of a department within the ministry, said that Russia had backed the new sanctions plan in order to help “create the sort of atmosphere in which it would become more difficult for the Americans to justify military action against Iraq even before their own allies.”

The Russian diplomats also used yesterday’s talks to underline their claim that Russian action at the UN had in fact served to shape the U.S. sanctions plan in a way that blunted its impact on Iraq. Bogdanov was quoted in this context as saying that Russia had been assured that the “so-called smart sanctions” plan, which foresaw the creation of a “deep, echeloned cordon sanitaire along Iraq’s borders, was emasculated–and the idea itself buried.”

Meanwhile, there were also indications yesterday that Moscow hopes to move forward to negotiate and sign lucrative new contracts with Iraq. A Russian Fuel and Energy Minister was quoted as saying that officials from the two countries had worked out a new long-term program for bilateral cooperation envisaging some US$40 billion in new contracts. According to Bogdanov, an official Russian delegation will soon be dispatched to Baghdad in order to finalize this agreement (AP,, Interfax, May 20).

Whether Iraqi-Russian cooperation will emerge as a point of friction at this week’s summit is unclear, but the issue would seem to be one with the potential to roil relations down the road. At the same time, there have been intimations from Bush administration officials that they have offered some assurances to Moscow that its economic interests will be kept in mind in the event that the United States does move to topple Saddam Hussein. Those assurances have reportedly included suggestions not only that Russian oil contracts in Iraq will be safe, but also that a post-Saddam regime might actually be more able to address what is one of Russia’s major concerns with respect to Iraq–assuring repayment of Baghdad’s estimated US$7 billion Soviet-era debt to Moscow (Baltimore Sun, March 5; The Guardian, May 15).