Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 74

Approximately a week after a meeting between top Russian and U.S. diplomats signaled the possibility of a positive new trend in bilateral relations, the Kremlin is set to host a visit in Moscow this week which will likely set Bush administration officials’ teeth on edge. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan is expected to arrive in Moscow late in the day today for an official visit which will start tomorrow and stretch into the weekend. The importance of this event is underscored both by Ramadan’s position–he is being described as the highest-ranking Iraqi government official to visit Moscow since the imposition of UN sanctions on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait–and by the timing of his arrival, which comes only a few weeks after President Vladimir Putin floated a proposal for lifting the international sanctions on Iraq. The visit also comes amid stepped up efforts by Moscow to recapture some of its former influence in the Middle East by tapping into Arab anger over worsening hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians and Arab frustration over the consequences of continuing sanctions on Iraq. In both these regards Russian policy thus presents potential challenges to the new U.S. administration’s own efforts to shape developments in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

That Baghdad hopes Ramadan’s visit will help further solidify Iraq’s already friendly relations with Russia was suggested by reports out of Baghdad earlier this week, which said that Ramadan had met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein specifically to discuss his Russia visit. The meeting was reportedly also attended by both the vice chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, Izzat Ibrahim, and by Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz (who has himself been a fairly regular visitor to Moscow). The official Iraqi news agency INA reported that Saddam had also used the meeting with Ramadan to urge Russia to restore its status on the international stage. “Iraq wants Russia to restore its role” as a superpower,” the Iraqi leader reportedly said during the Sunday meeting (Reuters, AFP, April 16).

To date Russia has been Iraq’s most steadfast supporter on the UN Security Council, and Baghdad authorities have pressured Moscow to take an ever more active role both in seeking to have UN sanctions on Iraq lifted and in encouraging actions aimed at undermining the sanctions regime. Russia has done both, pushing constantly for an early removal of sanctions in Security Council discussions in New York while encouraging Russian and other foreign airlines to begin scheduling flights to Baghdad. In addition, Moscow has repeatedly criticized continued U.S. and British patrolling of the so-called “no-fly zones” over Iraq. Russian policy in this area has been driven in part by economic considerations: Iraq owes Russia some US$8 billion in unpaid Soviet-era debts, and Russian companies are reported to have signed contracts with Baghdad (mostly in energy development) worth tens of billions of dollars. Moscow is unlikely to see any of that money, however, until the UN sanctions regime on Iraq is lifted.