Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 173

Tensions between Russia and the United States over UN policy toward Iraq intensified this past weekend when a group of Russian oil experts flew directly from Moscow to Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. The flight appeared to represent a Russian challenge both to the UN’s disputed ban on flights to and from Iraq and to U.S. efforts to maintain Baghdad’s diplomatic isolation. It appeared also to reflect a new assertiveness in Russia’s diplomatic support for Saddam Hussein. Russia has long moved in conjunction with China and France in calling for UN sanctions on Iraq to be lifted. It has also criticized continuing U.S. and British air actions in the “no-fly zones” over Iraq while simultaneously working to accommodate Baghdad on the question of resuming UN arms inspections in Iraq. Iraqi officials have on several occasions urged Moscow to express its support for Baghdad in more concrete terms. The September 17 flight to Baghdad may be part of an effort by Russia to satisfy those exhortations. The action seems sure to intensify already sharp tensions within the divided UN Security Council over policy toward Iraq.

Reports out of Baghdad and Moscow this weekend were clear on who had arrived in Iraq on the Russian flight. They were anything but clear, however, on what Moscow was trying to demonstrate by authorizing the flight. The YAK-42 was said to have been carrying eleven Russian oil experts, seven crew members and some medicine. Upon arrival in Baghdad, Arngolt Bekker, director of the Russian Stroitransgaz pipeline company, said that the purpose of the trip was to hold talks with Iraqi Oil Ministry officials about boosting cooperation between Russia and Iraq. The official Iraqi news agency quoted Bekker as also saying that the trip represented “an expression of Russia’s rejection of the flight ban illegally imposed on Iraq” (AP, September 18).

Indeed, the dispute over the flight focuses attention on a disagreement within the UN Security Council over whether the UN sanctions against Iraq include an air embargo. The United States and Britain, which have taken a generally harder line on all matters related to the sanctions, argue that civil flights to Iraq constitute an economic resource and cannot therefore be reinstated without violating the sanctions. Russia and France, on the other hand, claim that the Security Council never adopted specific text regarding the banning of all flights to and from Iraq. Russia reportedly has informed key Arab and European countries in recent weeks that it does not consider the UN air embargo to be justified under UN resolutions. It plans to challenge the practice of banning such flights. France has taken a somewhat more moderate approach, with Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine saying that, while Paris will not bar its citizens from humanitarian flights to Baghdad, it has no plans to authorize resumption of scheduled airline service (Washington Post, September 15).

The quote attributed to Bekker suggests that Sunday’s flight was indeed intended as a direct Russian challenge to the U.S.-British interpretation of the air embargo. Simultaneously, however, some Russian officials, apparently alluding to the small cache of medical supplies on board, made the dubious suggestions that the flight actually conformed to the UN embargo because it qualified as a humanitarian mission. “It was a humanitarian act. We are doing nothing which contradicts resolutions of the UN Security Council,” one unnamed senior Russian Foreign Ministry reportedly told AFP yesterday (AFP, September 18).

As of yesterday it was also less than clear whether the council had authorized the flight to Baghdad. According to a BBC report, the UN committee which oversees council sanctions against Iraq said that it had (BBC, September 19). AFP, however, quoted a UN diplomatic source as saying that Russia had, in fact, not waited for the UN’s green light. Sanctions Committee members, he said, had been given until yesterday to consider an earlier Russian notification that the flight was scheduled; the flight obviously took place before they were able to convene on the matter (AFP, September 18).

The issues in question are particularly important for several reasons. First, two of Russia’s major airline companies–Aeroflot and Vnukovo–have already launched negotiations with Baghdad to resume commercial air service to Iraq. Some reports have suggested that flights could begin as soon as next month, but others have said that while agreements in this area may soon be finalized, flights will not actually start until sanctions are lifted (Washington Post, September 15; AP, September 14). Second, the Russian move has come, perhaps not surprisingly, at a time when broader tensions in the Persian Gulf are on the rise. The Iraqi government reopened Saddam Hussein International Airport for business last month, while Iraqi authorities have also made what many believe to be threatening moves toward Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Russia’s apparent attempt to cash in on its longstanding friendship with Baghdad stands to up the political ante in the region, and could further complicate matters for Washington and London.