Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 234

Aside from its rhetoric, the Kremlin has taken several practical steps over the past two days to demonstrate its displeasure over developments in the Persian Gulf. Yeltsin summoned Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, each in the midst of visits abroad, back to Moscow for consultations. He also recalled Russian Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov from Washington. That action–it was the first time that Moscow had recalled an ambassador from the United States in protest since before the fall of the USSR–was seen by many observers as a sign of Moscow’s extreme ire over the U.S.-British strikes on Iraq. In fact, however, there had been reports earlier this week that Vorontsov had been relieved of his duties, and would be replaced Yuri Ushakov. It was unclear whether Vorontsov would have been heading home in any event. In a parallel move this morning, the Kremlin recalled Yuri Fokin, its ambassador to Great Britain–the first time it has done so since 1971 (Reuters, December 18).

Cooperation between Russia and the West, at least in the near term, will apparently suffer in two other areas because of the strikes on Iraq. Russian sources indicated yesterday that, as a sign of protest, Sergeev would not attend a Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council meeting scheduled for today. The Russian defense chief had been scheduled to meet with his NATO counterparts to discuss a broad array of international security issues.

A number of Russian officials also made clear yesterday that the latest strikes on Iraq had all but eliminated any chance of an early ratification by Russian lawmakers of the START II strategic arms reduction treaty (Russian and Western agencies, December 17). It is hard to say whether that is a significant development. The Russian Duma has been dragging its feet on the treaty for many months in any event, and has held its ratification hostage to a seemingly ever-expanding array of related and unrelated foreign and domestic policy issues. Moreover, despite signs in recent weeks that ratification might finally be imminent, some key Russian legislators suggested in recent days that they, in fact, intended to continue blocking consideration of the treaty.

The appearance of yet another pretext for nonratification may be at least as difficult for the Russian government to swallow as it is for the United States. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov has repeatedly told lawmakers in recent weeks that START II ratification represents the only viable way for Russia to maintain some sort of nuclear parity with the United States. He has also warned that delays in ratification are likely to encourage the United States to break out of the 1972 ABM treaty.

Russia’s military may actually have gotten a boost out of yesterday’s developments. The statement approved by lawmakers included a recommendation that the Russian government increase state funding for the armed forces in 1999 to at least 3.5 percent of GDP (Russian agencies, December 17). An earlier draft of the Russian defense budget had reportedly called for limiting defense spending to under 3 percent of the budget. That decision provoked sharp opposition from the Defense Ministry. There were indications even before the latest events in the Gulf that projected defense spending for next year was to be raised to over 3 percent of GDP. What remained unclear was where the government was going to find the extra money for the armed forces.

Perhaps the most worrisome consequence of Moscow’s reaction was yesterday’s Duma decision to call for a reexamination of Russia’s participation in international sanctions on Iraq. There has long been strong sentiment in Russia to restore normal trade relations with Iraq, and the latest events in the Persian Gulf could push Moscow further along in that direction. Such a decision would likely be a lucrative one for Russia. Iraq’s Soviet-era debts to Moscow are estimated at some US$7 billion, and the two countries are reported to have signed a number of business contracts worth many billions more. Those business dealings can be activated only after the lifting of sanctions.