Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 148

Russia and the United States last week found themselves at loggerheads yet again over UN policy toward Baghdad, as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz completed a three-day visit to Moscow which included a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. On July 28, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov dismissed U.S. complaints over the visit, telling reporters that “Russia is a sovereign and independent state, which itself determines with whom and on what scale to maintain relations… We have and will continue to maintain an intensive dialogue with Iraq” (AP, July 28; Reuters, July 29; Russian agencies, July 27). His remarks followed a statement by U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, who reiterated Washington’s position that UN Security Council members should not host visits by Iraqi officials.

Aziz’s visit to Moscow last week was by no means his first, but in several respects it did appear to be something of a departure from his earlier trips to the Russian capital. Most noteworthy was the fact that the trip was announced beforehand and apparently had the status of an official visit. Previous visits by the Iraqi minister have generally been described in such terms as “hastily arranged,” and were said to have been organized on an unofficial basis by Russian nongovernmental organizations. Last week’s visit was also noteworthy because it came amid news reports that the United States and Britain are pushing an investigation whose aim is to indict a number of top Iraqi officials–including Aziz and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein–for alleged war crimes. According to the BBC, European governments are now facing increasing pressure from Washington to detain any of the listed Iraqis who arrive on their territory (BBC, July 25). In that respect, Aziz’s visit last week had something in common with a controversial one this past spring by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic. Ojdanic has been indicted on war crimes charges by the UN court in The Hague. His visit to Moscow was sharply condemned by both The Hague court and several Western governments. Russian officials last week made–pointedly–no mention in public of the new charges against the Iraqi leadership.

In criticizing Moscow’s latest decision to host Aziz, the U.S. State Department made clear its hope that the Kremlin would, at the very least, use the visit to push Baghdad to comply with those UN Security Council resolutions which, among other things, oblige it to permit the resumption of work by UN arms inspectors in Iraq. Indeed, Reeker was also quoted as saying that Washington expected the Russians to make clear to Iraq that the root of the current confrontation with Iraq and sanctions was due to Baghdad’s own refusal to abide by the Security Council resolutions and to its challenges to the no-fly zones over Iraq which the United States and Britain have enforced. Reeker also suggested that Moscow had gone some way to meeting those U.S. demands. “I think [that] if you refer to the wire reports” covering the Putin-Aziz meeting, “that, in fact, is what President Putin had done,” he told reporters (Reuters, July 27).

Some observers might question Reeker’s assessment. News reports out of Moscow suggested that Putin had indeed used his talks with Aziz to try to convince Baghdad to begin cooperating with the UN Security Council. Among other things, the Russian president was quoted as saying that a decision by Iraq to allow the resumption of UN arms inspections would make it easier for Moscow to continue to push for a lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq. There were also suggestions that Moscow had offered improved relations between Iraq and Russia–given the continuing sanctions on Iraq, it is unclear what that might mean–if Baghdad agreed to cooperate with the UN weapons inspection program (UPI, AP, July 26).

But it was not at all clear whether such Russian statements meant that Moscow was trying to exert pressure on Baghdad, and even less reason to believe that Putin and other top Russian officials had used the Aziz visit–as Washington had hoped– in order to push on Iraqi leaders the view that it is their actions which are responsible for the current confrontation with the UN. Indeed, much of the news coming out of Moscow suggested just the opposite. Both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for example, restated harsh Russian criticism of U.S. and British air attacks on Iraq.

Perhaps more important, Russian leaders also appeared to leave unanswered a key question related to timing: that is, whether Baghdad must first allow a resumption of inspections before any lifting of sanctions can be considered, or whether the Security Council should begin relaxing sanctions as an incentive for Iraq to work with the UN inspectors. That Moscow remains sympathetic to the latter course of action was suggested by Ivanov’s insistence that it is “important not only to get Iraq to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, but also to create for this favorable external conditions.” Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko likewise said that Moscow wanted to ensure that the inspectors sent to Iraq were “unbiased” (AP, Russian agencies, July 28; Reuters, July 27). That now standard formulation encapsulates Moscow’s twin contentions that the UN’s earlier weapons inspection team–UNSCOM–was unduly hostile toward Baghdad, and that any new group of inspectors must be willing to work more cooperatively with Iraqi authorities (a condition which some in the West say would render the arms inspection regime ineffective).

Indeed, Putin’s decision to meet with Aziz personally, and the fact that Moscow had conferred official status on the visit, led one Russian daily to suggest last week that Moscow is in fact looking to interject itself as the one “irreplaceable mediator” in relations between the West and the so-called “rogue states.” In this regard, the newspaper equated the Aziz visit with Putin’s recent groundbreaking trip to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (Kommersant daily, July 22). In remarks to reporters made early last week, Prikhodko denied that Moscow was harboring any plans to attract such “rogue” states as Iraq, North Korea, or Cuba “into its orbit.” But recent Russian diplomatic efforts (Putin is also reportedly planning a visit to Cuba) certainly raise questions regarding what looks to be Moscow’s effort to resuscitate ties with countries currently on the margins of the international system and previously (during the Cold War) allied with the Soviet Union.

One event which will apparently not take place any time soon is a visit by Putin to Iraq. On July 21 an aide to ultranationalist parliamentary deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky told reporters that Putin was preparing a possible visit to Iraq. According to Aleksei Mitrofanov, the question of a meeting between Putin and Saddam Hussein was to be on the agenda during the Aziz visit to Moscow. He suggested that Zhirinovsky’s LDPR party, which maintains close ties with Hussein, was “seeking to play a role” in setting up the meeting (AFP, July 22). Prikhodko, however, appeared to throw cold water on the idea. He told reporters that, although Aziz had delivered a message to Putin from Saddam, there were no talks during the Iraqi minister’s visit of a possible Iraqi-Russian summit (Reuters, July 27).

One of the more interesting features of last week’s Russian-Iraqi talks in Moscow was the fact that they appeared to contain no implicit or overt threats from Baghdad that Russian oil companies could lose out on lucrative contracts in Iraq if Moscow does not move more concretely to support Baghdad. Threats of that sort had become a recurrent theme last year in relations between the two countries, as Iraqi authorities tried to pressure Moscow into violating UN sanctions if necessary as a means of easing Iraq’s economic isolation (see the Monitor, December 6, 1999). Whether Baghdad’s decision to drop that line during the Aziz visit represents a tactical retreat on the part of the Iraqi leadership or a more lasting policy change–one perhaps related to Putin’s accession to power in Russia–remains unclear.