Russian government officials have sharply condemned Friday’s U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq, calling the military action unjustified and counterproductive. Moscow appears set to try to use the raids, which generated considerable criticism within the NATO alliance and throughout the Middle East, to exacerbate already existing tensions between Washington and its European allies and to improve Moscow’s position in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
With that goal in mind, Russian condemnations of the air raids tended to focus on criticisms of U.S. foreign policy which a number of foreign governments have long enunciated: namely, that Washington has a penchant for acting in a unilateral fashion, that it is too quick to resort to force to resolve international conflicts and that it yearns to play the role of international policeman. The Clinton administration often found itself hard pressed to rebut such charges, and the newly installed Bush administration, which has vowed to take a harder line on a host of foreign policy issues, will in its early days face at least as great a challenge in this area.
The stakes may, however, be higher for the new administration. Its number one foreign policy priority–the deployment of a U.S. ballistic missile defense system–has been an important contributing factor to perceptions that Washington is set on a unilateralist course. The Bush administration’s efforts to dispel this notion, moreover, could be undermined by another of its high-priority foreign policy goals: the reinvigoration of UN sanctions against Baghdad and a harder line toward Iraq in general. International support for the sanctions regime eroded steadily in the last years of the Clinton administration, and criticism of U.S. support for the sanctions–as well as of continued U.S. and British air strikes in the “no-fly zones”–experienced a corresponding rise in Europe and throughout the Middle East.
Against this background, Moscow’s wide-ranging condemnations of the February 16 American-British raids were no surprise. They included the relatively measured response attributed to President Vladimir Putin, who said on February 17 that the raids had done nothing to settle the situation in the Persian Gulf and that a solution to the conflict there could only be political. General Leonid Ivashov, the notoriously hardline head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s foreign liaisons office, was considerably more outspoken. He called the air raids “a challenge to international security and the entire world community,” and suggested that Washington had launched the raids in order to torpedo talks between Iraq and the UN scheduled for late this month.
Russian lawmakers, meanwhile, resumed a long tradition of denouncing U.S. actions in the Persian Gulf. Some, including ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called for Russia to unilaterally abandon the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. According to Dmitry Rogozin, the chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, deputies will vote tomorrow on a resolution urging the government to do just that. Zhirinovsky arrived yesterday in Baghdad, and will undoubtedly use this latest of many trips to Iraq to proclaim Russian-Iraqi friendship and to issue fresh denunciations of the U.S.-British air raids.
Whether the Russian government will take any concrete action in response to these developments is another matter. The Duma vote–should it, as expected, result in approval of the resolution–is in no way binding on the government. The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, has said that Moscow has no intention of unilaterally withdrawing from the sanctions regime. Russian diplomats argue that any such action would only undermine Moscow’s longstanding effort to strengthen the UN’s authority. The diplomats also suggested, moreover, that Russia was unlikely to introduce a UN Security Council resolution condemning the U.S.-British raids, because the measure would only be vetoed by Washington and London.
Moscow’s options for action therefore seem limited. What it can do, however, is to try to fan international criticism of U.S. policy toward Iraq, and to work with governments which share its position on this issue. The Kremlin made a start in this second area yesterday, when Putin held a telephone conversation with French President Jacques Chirac. A Kremlin statement released afterward underscored the closeness of the French and Russian positions on the air raids, and said that the two countries would “work actively to restore the dialogue between the Iraqi side and the United States and to undertake efforts for the rapid resolution of the Iraqi question on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions.” What was not clear was whether Moscow and Paris might mount a challenge to the legality of continued U.S.-British patrolling of the “no-fly zones.” In remarks to the press yesterday which reportedly distanced France farther than ever before from the United States on the question of Iraq, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said that Washington had “no legal basis for this kind of bombardment.” He also warned it to change its approach if it wanted to forge a new allied consensus on how to handle Saddam Hussein (Washington Post, February 17; AP, Reuters, February 16-17; Reuters, Russian agencies, February 19; International Herald Tribune, February 20).
Moscow itself, meanwhile, (and France as well) could begin feeling some pressure of its own as a result of the February 16 air raids. The fact that Russia has long been Baghdad’s staunchest supporter on the UN Security Council has not stopped the Iraqi government on several occasions from threatening Moscow with reprisals if it did not do more to ensure the lifting of the UN sanctions on Iraq. Those threats involved the possible revocation of what are believed to be a raft of potentially lucrative agreements between the Iraqi government and Russian energy interests which can be activated only after sanctions are lifted. Russian companies have already built a very active presence in Iraq, and fear the loss of those contracts, many of which involve projects rebuilding or developing Iraq’s oil economy.
It is financial considerations such as these, not to mention a perceived opportunity to raise its profile politically in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East, which have driven Russian moves over the past year to weaken the air embargo against Iraq and to intensify efforts to lift the UN sanctions on Baghdad (although Moscow has also continued to insist on a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq). And now a new element–the collapse of the Middle East peace process and an explosion of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab world–could present even an economically and militarily weakened Moscow with new opportunities and enticements to attempt both to thwart U.S. policy in the Gulf and to reestablish a Russian presence in the region.