Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 16

Russia Looks Anew to the Arab World

By Rossen Vassilev

In the standoff between Washington and Baghdad, Moscow has expressedsympathy with Iraq. Despite its strident condemnation of Americanactions in the region, however, the Kremlin has at the same timetried not to alienate Washington. Instead, Russia is making thebest of its weakened and unstable condition by engaging in someinnovative diplomacy aimed at reclaiming lost ground in the Arabworld.

Russian reaction to the U.S. bombing of Iraqi air defenses inearly September was uniformly negative. The Russian TV channelsprimarily aired Baghdad’s view of the events. In an interviewwith the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva, Security Councilchief Aleksandr Lebed compared the Clinton administration to "abull in a china shop," accusing it of acting "beyondbelief, beyond logic" in bombing Iraq. Deputy Foreign MinisterViktor Possuvalyuk warned Washington that it must respect Iraq’ssovereignty and territorial integrity. (1)

In Baghdad, the Russian charge d’affaires Vladimir Titorenko toldReuters that Russia does not authorize any form of military interventionon behalf of Iraq’s persecuted minorities. He also suggested thatBaghdad had every right to defend its airspace from intrudingAmerican warplanes. At the 96th Inter-Parliamentary Conferenceheld in Beijing, Gennady Seleznev, the Communist chairman of theRussian State Duma, denounced the U.S. missile attacks on Iraq,as well as the use of economic sanctions and embargoes which,he said, violated the principles of international law and infringedupon Baghdad’s sovereignty.

At a protest rally near the U.S. embassy in Moscow, at which anAmerican flag was burned, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky accusedWashington of preparing to start World War III and compared comparedBill Clinton to Hitler. (2)

At the UN, Russia was outspokenly critical of the U.S. and torpedoeda British-drafted resolution in the Security Council intendedto win backing for the American action. Russian diplomats alsocharged that the cruise missile and aircraft overflights werea violation of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that was set up betweenIraq and Kuwait after the Persian Gulf war. The Russian delegationto the 51st regular session of the UN General Assembly castigatedWashington for failing to seek support in the Security Councilbefore undertaking military operations against Iraq. In his firstspeech to the UN General Assembly as Russian foreign minister,Yevgeny Primakov warned that American attempts to "imposeunilateral decisions would provoke a chaotic and unpredictabledrift in international relations."

In contrast, the Russian media played down Saddam Hussein’s interventionin Kurdish infighting in northern Iraq — which led the WhiteHouse to order missile attacks on Baghdad’s military installationsin the first place — as a legitimate defense of Iraq’s territorialintegrity. Some Russian officials even praised the "currentrestraint," "patience," and "reason"shown by the Iraqi leadership and its "sensible" readinessto seek political solutions to the problems of the region. (3)

Together with France and China, Russia has championed the liftingof UN sanctions against Baghdad — presumably in order to tapIraq’s potential as a market for its exports. In his UN GeneralAssembly address, Primakov said, "We are convinced that theUN should take such measures only in exceptional cases after allother means have been fully exhausted." Washington has beeninsisting that the UN keep Iraq under a tight economic embargoand until recently the Russian government was supportive of theU.S. position.

Yet, Moscow did not take a hard anti-American stance during theIraqi crisis. Even though he was critical of American policiesin the region, Primakov avoided a direct confrontation with theU.S. over Iraq. Instead, he lived up to his reputation as "Saddam’sbuddy" by persuading Iraq not to create any new pretextsfor the further escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf. Throughoutthe crisis, the Russians remained in contact with the Americanambassador in Moscow, Thomas Pickering. The Kremlin sent out clearsignals to Washington that Russia’s diplomatic efforts were notaimed against American interests. (4) The Russian Foreign Ministryeven distanced itself from the pro-Iraqi remarks attributed toits Baghdad envoy. (5)

This deft diplomatic manoeuvreing shows that an old Middle Easthand is at the helm of Russia’s foreign relations. Unlike hisimmediate predecessor, Andrei Kozyrev, who placed a top priorityon maintaining cordial relations with the West, especially theU.S. — often to the neglect of relations with the Third World– Primakov seems to be eager to restore old ties with formerfriends and clients abroad. A major goal of his foreign policyis to regain for Russia the political and economic clout thatthe Soviet Union once enjoyed in the Arab world.

In what some have called the "Primakov Doctrine," Moscowis pursuing a low-cost and relatively risk-free strategy of steppinginto regional disputes as peacemaker and bolstering its influencethrough successful mediation and conciliation, often at the expenseof a "bellicose" U.S. The new foreign policy direction– endorsed at a recent gathering of ambassadors from the CIScountries — faced its first test during the latest Persian Gulfimbroglio. At first, Moscow vehemently condemned the cruise missilestrikes at Iraq as evidence of Washington’s ambition to dominatethe world in the post-Cold War era. But Primakov soon toned downthe official rhetoric and moved into the diplomatic vacuum tomediate on behalf of his old friend, President Saddam Hussein.In short order, the foreign ministers of Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, andother concerned countries began flocking to Moscow to seek Russianassistance in finding a way out of the crisis. On Russian TV,Primakov took credit for Baghdad’s pledge not to fire on U.S.aircraft patrolling the expanded "no-fly" zones overIraq — a claim confirmed by Iraqi officials. He boasted thatRussian diplomatic intervention was behind Baghdad’s self-restraint,which averted another U.S. air strike on Iraq.

The benefits from the new, pro-Iraqi diplomacy go far beyond claimingcredit for preventing another clash between Baghdad and Washington.Primakov is a longtime advocate of close ties between Moscow andBaghdad. He is pushing for a revival of the oil-for-food and medicinedeal negotiated earlier between the UN and Iraq, which has beensuspended under pressure from Washington. In the face of Americanresistance, he is trying to hammer out an international consensusto have all sanctions against Baghdad lifted. If he is successfulin this endeavor, Russian business interests will be able to returnto Iraq for lucrative trade deals and huge oil contracts.

The diplomatic windfall from the new strategy could be even moreattractive. By defending Iraq against American "aggression"and "hegemony," Primakov is enhancing his own reputationin the Middle East as a trusted friend of the Arabs. He is wellaware that his pro-Baghdad stand is bound to win him sympathythroughout the Arab world, where there is a growing oppositionto sanctions on humanitarian grounds. And he also knows that Arabsympathy will help him rebuild the many old connections in theMiddle East that were abandoned after the collapse of the SovietUnion.

With many Arab countries suspiciously eyeing the new, hardlineIsraeli government and its reluctant embrace of the stalled peaceprocess, Primakov realizes that the time is right for Moscow tore-enter the Middle East geopolitical game and exploit the strategicadvantages accruing from its tilt toward the Arabs. And he shrewdlysenses that such a move would likely be at the expense of Russia’serstwhile Cold War adversary, the U.S., which continues to beseen by Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists alike asIsrael’s sole arms-supplier and mentor.


1. Itar-Tass, September 17, 1996

2. Ekho Moskvi news agency, September 21, 1996

3. See Interfax, September 17, 1996; Itar-Tass, September 24,1996

4. Segodnya, September 20, 1996, p. 9

5. Itar-Tass, September 16, 1996