Surprisingly, the official Russian media reaction to the publication of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report has been very restrained — even difficult to find (Rossiya TV, NTV, December 6). This restraint may be because official Russian commentators and the government well understand that total chaos in Iraq is not in Moscow’s interest and that a U.S. withdrawal now seems to be in the cards. Should that be the case, it could lead to an international conference along the lines that Russia once proposed (Rossiyskiye vesti, November 30).
On the other hand, the Russian print media exhibited a greater diversity of opinion. Indeed, some commentators, like retired General Viktor Baranets, openly stated that the United States and NATO are heading towards a military crisis due to Iraq (Komsomolskaya pravda, December 6). Other accounts suggested the report indicates a maturation of the Bush administration, whose strategic wisdom regarding Iraq is clearly not held in esteem by the Russian media, to the point where the White House could now accept or had to accept public criticism of its failures in Iraq. Thus some commentators made much out of new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ testimony to the effect that America was not winning in Iraq. They saw it as an admission of defeat (Kommersant, December 7). Kommersant also saw Gates’ testimony as an open rebuttal of positions espoused by Vice-President Richard Cheney and outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Kommersant, December 7).
Still, reporters like Mikhail Zygar dismissed the Study Group as proposing a policy that essentially sought to reduce the number of Americans and friendly Iraqis being killed. He cynically stated that the Study Group’s plan is to make a reduction in the U.S. presence possible by increasing the number of Iraqis working with them. These Iraqis might be killed, but at least the U.S. soldiers would be safe (Kommersant, December 7). And as a further example of this diversity of opinion, Gazeta.ru called the Study Group’s findings and conclusions “shocking” (Gazeta.ru, December 6).
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that anyone in the Russian government found the assessment of the situation in Iraq to be “shocking,” although they may have been surprised that a blue-ribbon commission would make the policy recommendations that the Study Group did. Still, it is unlikely that Moscow will do much to help Washington find a way out of the Iraqi morass or refrain from exploiting the situation there in pursuit of its own interests, namely, returning to great power status in the Middle East, even though Moscow has never publicized any plan for solving any of that troubled region’s multiple conflicts.
Indeed, recent signs in Russian foreign policy suggest that Moscow is determined to continue along this path. Moscow’s diplomatic obstinacy has succeeded in getting the prospective European resolution on Iran to be watered down before being presented to the UN Security Council. Tehran has also announced that Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran will increase (RIA-Novosti, December 11). Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy to Islamic states and commissioner for relations with the Islamic world, Veniamin Popov, recently visited Iran and stated that Russia’s cooperation with Islamic states would help settle the problems in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and thus the entire Middle East. Popov also pointed out the growing gap between Western states and the Islamic world, likely a prelude to citing the timeworn notion of Russia being a bridge between civilizations, a theory that is again in favor in Moscow (IRNA, December 4).
So while the Russian official media may well adopt a circumspect attitude toward the Study Group’s report, it also appears that the government will not reconsider its path of trying to be a counter to the United States throughout the Middle East and a protector of Iran. It may withhold comment on the report because there is no need to act when your rival is drowning in his own errors, but there should be little doubt that Moscow will immediately exploit any further stumbles by Washington in the Middle East.