Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 80

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan wound up a five-day official visit to Russia on April 21 which, in its public manifestations at least, appeared oddly subdued. Ramadan is the highest-ranking Iraqi leader to visit Moscow since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and his talks with top Russian leaders might have been expected to produce the sort of heavy news coverage and sprinkling of provocative–and anti-American–statements which have been a feature of some past Russian-Iraqi meetings. In general, though, such was not the case with this visit. Press coverage of Ramadan’s stay in Russia was anything but excessive, while both the Russian and the Iraqi delegations appeared, on the whole, to be on their best behavior during the press conferences which followed their meetings. Ramadan did hold a ninety-minute meeting with President Vladimir Putin on April 18, and met also during his stay with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. He also traveled to the southern Russian republic of Tatarstan.

Ramadan did win yet another Russian pledge to work for the lifting of UN sanctions against Iraq. And reports suggested that the Iraqi-Russian talks had served to further boost already friendly bilateral relations between the two countries more generally. Indeed, reports on the eve of Ramadan’s arrival suggested that Russian participation in Iraqi oil projects would be one of the top items on the discussion agenda, and Foreign Minister Ivanov told reporters that Putin’s meeting with Ramadan did focus on “cooperation in the fuel and energy sphere,” as well as on “the rebuilding of industrial facilities [and] the restoration of the Iraqi economy and other projects.” In addition, the two countries reportedly reached an agreement under which meetings of experts will be convened in order to discuss the issue of Iraq’s estimated US$8 billion debt to Russia.

But few details were made public about either the oil and energy talks or the debt negotiations, and the more general tone surrounding Ramadan’s visit appeared to be one of restraint and caution. That is, in past Russian-Iraqi encounters there has sometimes been an almost palpable sense of the urgency Moscow feels to stay in Baghdad’s good graces, an urgency which at times has been met by a corresponding willingness on Iraq’s part to pressure Moscow to do even more to further the lifting or the undermining of the UN sanctions imposed on Baghdad. The lever the Iraqi authorities wield in such cases has been its control over what are believed to be billions of dollars worth of energy development contracts signed by Russian companies with Baghdad, contracts which can only be fulfilled once the sanctions regime is lifted. On more than one occasion top Iraqi officials have insinuated that Russian companies could lose these contracts if Moscow did not move beyond a “declaratory” policy in favor of the lifting sanctions toward a more activist policy aimed at undermining or defying them.

On the eve of Ramadan’s visit to the Russian capital, however, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov laid out to Russian lawmakers in unusually straight terms the need for Baghdad to accept the restoration of UN weapons inspections in Iraq in order for sanctions to be lifted. That assertion came despite clamorings often heard from Russian nationalist and communist groups for Moscow to depart unilaterally from the sanctions regime. Ivanov also spoke despite Baghdad’s repeated assertions that it will under no circumstances consider the return of the weapons inspection teams. Moscow appeared to stick to that line during Ramadan’s visit. Russian calls for a lifting of sanctions were balanced by precisely this call for Iraq to comply with all UN resolutions. Ramadan, for his part, reasserted Baghdad’s rejection of any reimposition of the UN sanctions regime. But he appeared to make no public mention of Baghdad’s earlier demands, and chose also not to repeat earlier warnings that Russian energy development companies should begin fulfilling their contracts in Iraq immediately–even at the risk of defying or violating the UN sanctions regime (Reuters, April 18; Moscow Times, April 19; Russian agencies, April 17, 19; AFP, April 22).

Moscow’s seemingly more measured approach during Ramadan’s visit may have been a product in part of the Kremlin’s growing domination of the Russian parliament. As formal opposition to Putin diminishes, nationalist and communist lawmakers may be feeling more constrained in voicing provocative demands on key foreign policy issues. This could be relieving the Kremlin of the need, in rhetorical terms at least, to meet more extremist critics of its foreign policies halfway.

But the Russian restraint may also be the product of a more subtle Kremlin attempt to bolster Moscow’s long pursuit of a more high-profile role in Middle East peacemaking. Reports out of Moscow and elsewhere suggest that the Kremlin is now trying to present itself to the region’s leaders as an honest broker. As described by one top Russian diplomat, Moscow is no longer picking sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute, but instead prefers an open-door policy in which Russia can negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict (AFP, Reuters, April 17).

This seemingly more balanced approach was manifested in part by the fact that Moscow hosted a delegation of visiting Kuwaiti lawmakers simultaneously with Ramadan’s visit. It appeared likewise to be highlighted by the fact that Moscow also played host last week to a visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara. Against a background of intensifying hostilities in the Middle East, Moscow kept its own rhetoric in check during the Shara visit. More important, Putin, who held a meeting with Shara, reportedly accepted an invitation from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to visit Damascus. No date for the trip was announced, but Putin’s apparent decision to visit the Middle East suggests a new move by Moscow to raise its profile in the region (AFP, Reuters, April 17; Russian agencies, April 16-17). The possibility that Moscow could emerge from these latest diplomatic maneuverings as a peacemaker of some sort was further enhanced by another announcement, also made earlier this month, indicating that planning is currently underway for a visit to Moscow by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (Russian agencies, April 13).