Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 32

After a period of relative silence, the Kremlin this week began to make clear its discomfort with some of the policies set out or implied in U.S. President George W. Bush’s January 29 State-of-the Union speech. The biggest salvo from Moscow came in a two-hour interview President Vladimir Putin granted the Wall Street Journal on February 11. Other Russian officials have continued to trumpet the Kremlin’s official line on the subject in public remarks made over the past several days. Russian discomfort with Bush’s speech, however, is no surprise. In shifting the focus of the U.S. antiterror effort from Afghanistan to the three countries–Iraq, Iran and North Korea–which Bush labeled an “axis of evil,” Washington was also ending a phase of the antiterror war in which it had partnered with Russia by announcing that it was moving on to target three countries with which Moscow has close relations.

Differences between Moscow and Washington in this area, moreover, have been thrown into even sharper relief in the days following Putin’s Wall Street Journal interview by fresh indications from Washington that the Bush administration is indeed seriously preparing for a campaign to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power. Press reports suggest that a military campaign against Saddam is unlikely to start in earnest before this autumn, however (New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, February 13). This gives Moscow and Washington time to seek a mutually satisfactory diplomatic resolution to the Iraqi crisis–a resolution that might in fact be facilitated by the increasing pressure that Washington is exerting on Baghdad. It seems likely in the meantime, however, and the comments by Russian officials this week would seem to foreshadow the possibility, that the Kremlin will attempt to use the concerns expressed in a number of foreign capitals over the Bush administration’s latest policy turn to rally international opposition to any U.S. military move against Iraq.

Putin walked a careful line in his Wall Street Journal interview, repeatedly making his desire to preserve friendly relations with Washington clear but at the same time setting out Russia’s disagreements with Bush’s axis of evil speech. Thus, Putin played down the chances of any rupture occurring in Russian-U.S. ties, and repeated the now standard Russian claim–one that the Bush administration probably does not share–that cooperation between Washington and Moscow “is the most important factor for stability in the world.” He also spoke of the “new level of trust, a very high level of trust” that he said had developed between Washington and Moscow in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Putin’s critique of evolving U.S. antiterror policy, on the other hand, appeared to center on two interrelated concerns. One, expressed in terms of what Putin called Russia’s opposition to any “drawing up of blacklists,” implicitly challenges the efficacy and rationale of Washington’s decision to target Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the antiterror war. Putin appears to be arguing, like other critics of the Bush administration’s “axis of evil” approach in Russia and the West, that no direct link has been drawn between any of these three countries and the September 11 attacks in the United States, and that the effort to characterize them as terrorist states is also one that might be questioned.

Washington, of course, is basing its new policy on the contention that the three countries constitute a threat because they are intent on developing weapons of mass destruction. But if Putin does not mention this argument directly he appears nonetheless to cover it in the second–and perhaps the more important–of the concerns he expressed in the interview. That is that the United States must work with the world community, via the United Nations, if it wishes to effectively continue its war against international terrorism. According to the Wall Street Journal, Putin indicated that while Russia and other nations had given the United States a pass in Afghanistan, they would not do so in Iraq or elsewhere where “there is no ground to violate internationally recognized procedures” or to sideline the UN Security Council. Putin, moreover, did not directly rule out UN-sanctioned military action against Iraq, but he described it as a last resort that could come only after the world community pushed for such practical measures as the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq.

Excerpts from Putin’s interview with the Wall Street Journal were aired on Russian television on February 11, and some Russian commentators were quick to suggest that his remarks–in particular those reiterating the importance of a continuing Russian-U.S. partnership–were directed as much at his domestic audience as at the United States. Putin’s call for continued friendly ties with Washington were said in this context to be directed at those who have questioned the Kremlin’s pro-American policies, and who have argued more specifically that Russia’s embrace of the U.S. antiterror campaign in Afghanistan brought Moscow few benefits while confronting it with new risks. Putin reportedly dismissed the importance of these critics in the Journal interview when he was quoted as saying that “Of course there are probably some [critics]–with and without epaulets–who for political purposes or because they don’t know what is going on, make some critical comments” (Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Interfax, February 11; Strana.ru, February 12).

Kremlin security and foreign policy officials, meanwhile, continued this week to emphasize Russian concerns over U.S. antiterror policy. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for example, used a meeting with visiting 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 approval of the UN Security Council. Russia’s Foreign Ministry followed up the Ivanov comments with the issuance yesterday of a document (entitled “International terrorism: Russia’s position”) which expressed concerns over what it said were signs of a weakening in the international antiterror coalition that was built to wage the war in Afghanistan. In what was clearly an indirect reference to Washington, the document complained that some were now trying to use the antiterrorist war to rekindle “Cold War ideas and geopolitical confrontation.” The document also warned against the use of “double standards” in waging the antiterror war–Moscow’s standard formulation for attacking those who question the manner in which Russia is waging its war in Chechnya–and once again tried to draw direct connections between Chechen rebels and al-Qaida groups in Afghanistan (AP, February 11; Interfax, February 13).

Against this contentious background, negotiations between Russian and U.S. officials have nonetheless continued–and apparently with some success–on the question of reshaping the UN sanctions regime on Iraq. Washington’s UN Ambassador, John Negroponte, said in Washington on February 11 that talks in Geneva earlier this month had brought Russia and the United States closer to an agreement on the so-called “smart sanctions” regime. That is a British-U.S. plan that would loosen UN restrictions on civilian imports into Iraq while straightening those related to the import of military and dual-use goods. Russian sources were less effusive in their description of the Geneva talks, but they too suggested that some progress had been made. The next round of negotiations on the smart sanctions is scheduled to take place in March. According to Negroponte, the U.S. side is hopeful that an agreement on the smart sanctions plan can be completed by June 1 (AP, Interfax, February 11).