Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 48

Yesterday, as the United Nations and Iraq held their first talks in more than a year, published reports have appeared recently suggesting that Russia and the United States may be narrowing their own differences on how best to deal with Baghdad. If that is indeed the case, it would be a significant development. Moscow has long been Iraq’s most vigorous defender on the UN Security Council, repeatedly criticizing the United States for its harder line toward Baghdad and using the power it wields as a Security Council permanent member to impede various American and British initiatives. Over the past year, Russian diplomats have obstructed U.S. and British efforts to reshape the existing UN sanctions regime on Iraq, despite the fact that two other longtime supporters of Baghdad, China and France, have themselves lined up behind the American-British “smart sanctions” proposal. Moscow has also been critical of U.S. efforts to condemn Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” and has voiced its discomfort with reported U.S. plans to launch military actions against Iraq with the goal of toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

If recent reports are to be believed, however, Moscow’s position may be shifting on some of these key issues. Last November, the Kremlin agreed to work with Washington in an effort to reach agreement on the smart sanctions plan, and the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, claimed late last month that these efforts were bearing some fruit. In a speech made at Georgetown University, Negroponte said that U.S. officials are “quite confident we’ll reach agreement with the Russians” on the terms of the smart sanctions plan, and that the new sanctions regime should be in place by a June 1 deadline (AP, February 27). The ongoing negotiations between Russian and U.S. experts in this area are aimed at narrowing differences on goods that should or should not be allowed into Iraq under the new sanctions regime. The smart sanctions plan calls for a relaxation of controls over civilian and humanitarian goods entering Iraq, but would establish more stringent controls over military and dual-use items. Russia seeks to narrow the list of prohibited items, the United States to broaden it.

Of more significance, Bush administration officials are suggesting that Vladimir Putin’s government may also be relaxing Russian opposition to possible U.S. military actions against Iraq. According to a report published by the Baltimore Sun earlier this week, an unnamed senior administration official said that the ongoing cooperation between Russia and the United States thus far in the antiterror war could extend to possible U.S. actions against Iraq. The official said that Moscow is coming around to the U.S. view that a failure by Iraq to readmit UN weapons inspectors would constitute a violation of UN resolution 687–the document laying out the terms of the ceasefire that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf war–and that the “authorization to use force” against Iraq would thus come “back into effect.” The official allowed that a Russian willingness to sanction the use of force in this way would probably not extend to U.S. plans for ousting Saddam Hussein. But, given the degree to which Russian-American relations have changed since September 11, he did not rule out that agreement even on this delicate issue might be within reach.

Moreover, the same official said that the United States might be willing to accommodate Russia with regard to its primary concerns over possible U.S. military action against Iraq–namely, that Moscow might be shut out of trade with a post-Saddam regime in Iraq, or find itself unable to collect on some US$7-8 billion in debts that Baghdad owes Russia. Indeed, the official said that it “may well be easier for them [the Russians] to achieve those objectives with a regime change in Baghdad than it would be otherwise.” That assessment coincides with the views of some other experts on Iraq, who have suggested that countries with major commercial interests in Iraq–like Russia and France–may be rethinking their support of Hussein in view of the threats that have been leveled in recent weeks by the United States against Baghdad (Baltimore Sun, March 5; New York Times, March 6).

The notion that the Russian government may be taking a harder line toward its friends in Baghdad was given some credence earlier this winter, when Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz appeared to be the recipient of a Russian diplomatic rebuff during a pair of visits to Moscow. Aziz paid a three-day visit to the Russian capital in late January, and then traveled on to Beijing. Reports suggested that his talks in the two capitals were aimed at ensuring Russian and Chinese opposition to the U.S.-British smart sanctions plan. Aziz apparently got little satisfaction in Beijing, however, and then cut short a follow-up visit to Moscow that began on January 31. Neither the Russian nor the Iraqi side made clear exactly why Aziz had departed Moscow early, but soon after his arrival back in the Iraqi capital Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan sharply criticized the Russian Foreign Ministry (but not President Vladimir Putin directly) for what he said was Russia’s decision to cooperate with the United States on the sanctions issue (see the Monitor, January 28, February 6).

None of this means, however, that Russia and the United States have suddenly harmonized their positions on Iraq. A Russian envoy, for example, emphasized Moscow’s firm opposition to the use of force against Iraq during a tour of Persian Gulf countries in late February (Interfax, February 21). And as talks between the UN and Iraq got started in New York yesterday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko urged that the two sides make a serious effort to seek compromises that would help defuse the tensions surrounding Iraq. Moscow has also enthusiastically embraced the renewal of talks between Iraq and the UN more generally, a position that Yakovenko underlined again in his remarks yesterday (Interfax, March 7).

On those points, Russia and the United States are sharply at odds. The Bush administration has been unenthusiastic about the resumption of talks between Iraq and the UN, believing that they serve as little more than a delaying tactic by Baghdad. And U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addressing the Iraq-UN talks, advised UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to limit himself to reminding the Iraqis that they must comply with Security Council demands (AFP, March 7). Iraq thus remains a hot-button issue, one on which improved Russian-U.S. ties could yet founder. Putin, moreover, could face sharp criticism from nationalists and hardliners in Moscow if he moves too precipitously toward the United States on Iraq. Against this background, the success that Moscow and Washington have in narrowing their differences on Iraq may depend to a great extent on their ability to find common ground on a host of other important issues, including strategic arms cuts, Russia-NATO cooperation, Iranian-Russian defense and nuclear cooperation and, most recently, trade policy (see the Monitor, March 7). Continued tensions in these areas could make an agreement on Iraq more difficult to achieve.