Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 74

Russia’s status as Baghdad’s number one backer has not precluded the appearance of tensions between the two countries, however, and Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan’s upcoming visit could highlight the fact that Moscow’s difficulties with regard to Iraq may not be limited to the adverse impact the visit could have on Russian-U.S. ties. That there is the potential for friction in Moscow this week was suggested by remarks attributed to Ramadan on April 14, when the Iraqi vice president is reported to have bluntly rejected a recent Russian proposal under which sanctions on Iraq would be lifted expeditiously once UN weapons inspectors are allowed back into the country. Indeed, Ramadan appeared to some degree to have belittled the Russian proposal, claiming in remarks quoted by INA that there is in fact “no Russian mediation for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq but just some Russian ideas” to break the deadlock between the UN and Baghdad (AFP, April 16),

Those words might be news to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which on April 3 released a statement declaring that “if, over a clearly defined, reasonable period of time, the [UN weapons] monitoring fails to uncover any Iraqi activity linked with banned military programs, then the UN Security Council should take a decision on lifting sanctions from Iraq.” The statement, which followed a March 27 message from Putin to an Arab summit meeting and is being treated in Russia as a significant diplomatic initiative, appears to be aimed both at rallying international support for a quick lifting of sanctions and at heading off what is expected to be the unveiling of a new U.S. policy that would seek to strengthen the sanctions regime by making it more flexible (see the Monitor, April 4). The Kremlin is undoubtedly hoping that Iraq will agree to these terms, a development which would be a major diplomatic victory for Moscow insofar as it would break the long impasse on policy toward Baghdad among UN Security Council members.

That Moscow may be prepared to stick to its guns during Ramadan’s visit on the question of readmitting UN weapons inspectors was suggested by testimony Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov gave to the Russian State Duma on April 13. Russia’s chief diplomat (whose days as foreign minister may be numbered), told lawmakers directly that sanctions against Iraq could be lifted only after Baghdad cooperates openly with UN weapons inspection teams. “No one should have any illusions about the possible prompt de facto lifting of sanctions against Iraq,” Ivanov was quoted as saying. Sanctions “can be lifted–only by the UN Security Council–and we should work to create conditions to allow the Security Council to take such a step” (AFP, Russian agencies, April 13).

Ivanov’s clearly stated description of Russian policy in this area was likely intended to mute criticism from Russian communist and nationalist groups, who have long argued that the sanctions against Iraq are unfair and that Russia should consider moving unilaterally to undermine the sanctions regime. The Kremlin has, in a sense, left itself only limited room for maneuver on this score, however. In criticizing NATO for its air war against Yugoslavia, for example, Russian authorities have highlighted the importance of maintaining the UN’s authority and of the critical need for member countries to act in accordance with UN decisions. Any move by Russia to conduct a policy toward Iraq in violation of UN Security Council resolutions would therefore severely undermine Russian foreign policy more generally.

The Kremlin may, moreover, be positioning itself to pursue another policy with regard to Iraq, one which would help to blunt any domestic criticism of its support for the UN sanctions regime. In his remarks to lawmakers Ivanov also said that Moscow had not ruled out the possibility that it would seek financial redress from the UN for material losses that it has suffered as a result of the sanctions on Iraq. Ivanov did not say how much compensation the Kremlin has in mind, but Russian estimates have suggested that Moscow’s losses as a result of ten years of sanctions could be as high as US$30 billion (Russian agencies, April 13). Moscow may also continue its policy of nibbling away at the edges of the sanctions regime by finalizing new commercial contracts which do not directly violate the UN restrictions. Russian sources have little to say on the subject of Iraqi-Russian trade talks in the runup to Ramadan’s arrival in Moscow, but one Russian senior diplomat did suggest in this context yesterday that talks between the two sides might produce some significant “concrete results” (Russian agencies, April 16).