Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 234

Russian officials from across the political spectrum erupted with predictable fury yesterday to the launching of air strikes on Iraq by the United States and Britain. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose various infirmities have in recent months turned him into little more than a bit player in Russian diplomacy, denounced Washington and London for having “crudely violated the UN charter and universally accepted principles of international law.” He said also that the air strikes undermined “the entire system of international security, of which the UN and the Security Council are the linchpins.”

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an Arabist and former spymaster with longstanding ties to Saddam Hussein, spoke in similar terms. In remarks to a Russian cabinet meeting Primakov called the strikes on Iraq “scandalous.” He also expressed Moscow’s indignation in a telephone conversation with U.S. Vice President Al Gore. The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, protested the air attacks to the U.S. and British ambassadors, and claimed that the military actions were a blow to bilateral relations. Russian lawmakers responded with a similar brand of invective, and voted overwhelmingly to approve a statement condemning the air attacks on Iraq (International and Russian agencies, December 17).

While yesterday’s outpouring of rage in Moscow was considerable, it was not dissimilar from the reaction in the Russian capital during several earlier crises involving Western military action–real or threatened–directed at either Iraq or Yugoslavia. Nor did Yeltsin’s remarks yesterday represent a departure from the standard rhetoric heard out of Moscow in recent months. Desperate to reestablish Russian influence in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf, Moscow has been a steadfast supporter of political authorities in Baghdad and Belgrade. That stance has driven Moscow to oppose any punitive Western strikes on either Iraq or Yugoslavia, and to justify that stance on the basis of international law and the UN charter. That same logic has been evident in Moscow’s opposition to U.S. proposals which would broaden NATO’s mandate to include missions outside of the alliance’s territory, and to ensure some flexibility for NATO to act without direct UN approval.