Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 98

Russian opposition to the enactment of so-called “smart sanctions” was not unexpected and, indeed, reportedly followed an appeal to Moscow by a top Iraqi official. According to Itar-Tass, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had asked Russia to use its Security Council veto to block the sanctions proposal (AP, May 17). But Russian objections are based on broader considerations as well. They include the fact that the Russian Foreign Ministry offered an initiative of its own earlier this spring aimed at resolving the conflict between the UN and Iraq. It called, among other things, for “the suspension and then the removal of economic sanctions in exchange for the reestablishment on Iraqi territory of a system of international disarmament monitoring.” The proposal appeared to be offered in hopes that Moscow could exploit what it believes to be its influence in Baghdad to carve for itself a peacemaker role in the region. This Russian effort continued during a late April visit to Moscow by Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, during which the two sides again proclaimed their intention to further cement bilateral ties. The Ramadan visit was most noteworthy, however, for the fact that Moscow appeared to stick to an earlier call for Baghdad to readmit the UN weapons inspectors. The Iraqi government rejected the request, but Moscow’s firmness appears not to have harmed bilateral ties (see the Monitor, April 4, 17, 25).

The latest British plan, therefore, is probably being viewed in Moscow as a challenge to its own proposals for easing the UN deadlock over Iraq. In addition, Russian diplomats probably see in the British plan the potential for an indefinite extension of sanctions on Iraq. That would frustrate Moscow’s own efforts to deliver an early lifting of sanctions to Baghdad, and would also leave a host of Russian energy development contracts in limbo. Moscow can neither move on those reportedly very lucrative contracts nor expect repayment of Iraq’s estimated US$8 billion debt to Russia, until the sanctions regime is lifted.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, appears–due to domestic political considerations–to be taking a low-profile approach in backing the British proposal. But the issue seems nevertheless to have gotten a thorough airing during talks in Washington on May 18 between Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. In remarks afterwards to reporters, however, Ivanov said that the two sides had been unable to resolve their differences, and suggested that Moscow would continue to press its own proposals for easing the conflict over Iraq. Ivanov did not spell out specific Russian objections to the British plan. But he did say that Russian and American experts would continue to negotiate over the issue (Reuters, May 18). Those negotiations should provide an indication of whether a recent warming in Russian-U.S. relations–symbolized by the May 18 announcement that the presidents of the two countries will hold a summit meeting on June 16 in Slovenia–will bear early fruit, or whether haggling on this and other key international issues will continue even as the two countries resume high-level contacts.