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eurasianet.org, March 18, 2003

Split Develops in Russian Policy towards Iraq Crisis

By Igor Torbakov

With the United States poised to attack Iraq, the policy-making elite in Russia is grappling with the dilemma posed by the Bush administration's unilateralist foreign policy. While most in Moscow believe that a war with Iraq will seriously damage Russian interests, a split is developing over how Russia should respond to the imminent outbreak of war. One side appears ready to continue opposition to US military action, while the other says that Russia ought to embrace a realpolitik approach, and cooperate with the inevitable.

Russia, along with France and Germany, has thus far led the international opposition to the Bush administration's relentless drive for the armed ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. This opposition helped frustrate the US attempt to secure a United Nations Security Council endorsement for military action in Iraq.

This confrontational Russian stance exposed divisions within the community on the country's policy. A significant number of Russian commentators and policymakers opposed the country's Security Council position, arguing that a head-on collision with the United States established unacceptable risks for Russia's interests. For many, however, the desire to maintain cordial relations with Washington is not rooted in affinity for the United States, but more out of concern over the Bush administration's perceived arrogant and arbitrary behaviour.

Russia's dilemma is not a "choice between the US and Iraq," Alexander Bovin, a liberal political commentator and Russia's former ambassador to Israel, wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily. "It is a different choice - one between international law and international arbitrariness; between the UN Charter that, whatever its deficiencies, seeks to resolve key international issues on a collective basis, and the arrogance and hubris of a power that ignores international public opinion."

Bovin, while perhaps approving of Russia's UN stance as morally sound, suggested that existing geopolitical conditions required Moscow to adopt an expedient approach concerning the Iraq crisis. Quoting the wily French diplomat Talleyrand, Bovin asserted that politics is the art of cooperating with the inevitable. If diplomatic means could not deter the Bush administration from war, Moscow must bow to reality and now seek some sort of accommodation with Washington. "It is unwise to adopt a noble pose of the defender of international law," Bovin said. "The political loss will far exceed the moral gain."

Russia's potential loss, most in Moscow seem to agree, could be enormous. Alexander Pikayev, a military expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said in a commentary on the Russkii Zhurnal web site that an Iraq war could seriously damage Russia's economic development. A prolonged US occupation of Iraq could shut Russian oil interests out of what is currently a lucrative market for Moscow. It would also be likely to prompt a significant fall in global oil prices. Given the Russian budget's dependency on oil and gas revenues, Pikayev asserted a fall-off in global prices "will be extremely painful and will adversely affect the [country's] economic situation."

Russian political analysts are also concerned about the impact of the likely US occupation of Iraq. Many believe that the US presence in Iraq will encourage the present trend of destabilization in the already turbulent Middle East. Potential chaos in a region not that far removed from Russia's southern borders may cause a dangerous spillover into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

A more fundamental question for Moscow's policy-making community is how to contain US unilateralism. The Iraq crisis has dramatically illustrated the Bush administration's global view: Washington now considers itself to be in a permanent, legitimate state of self-defense, and has assumed the right to designate its enemies and subsequently engage in war. This new reality makes Russian politicians nervous.

Fearful of unfettered US might, the Russian Foreign Ministry has developed a "unity-in-diversity" doctrine, which is designed to stand in stark contrast with US unilateralism. "Pluralism is an integral component of democracy," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in comments published in the influential business daily Vedomosti. "Each country has a right to prove its case."

Ivanov's doctrine may not be in Russia's best interests, some influential policy makers contend. Moscow's diplomatic approach to the United States should be calibrated to best promote Moscow's interests, or in the case of an Iraq offensive, to minimize the fallout, Ivanov critics contend.

Vladimir Lukin, Deputy Speaker of the State Duma, is among the prominent critics of Russia's current diplomatic position. In a commentary published in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, Lukin cautioned against Russia assuming a leading role in trying to frustrate US strategic aims. "We might get caught in an old trap," Lukin said. "When Europe is unhappy with the United States, they push Russia to the forefront while they stand behind, quietly settling their differences with the United States in the background."

Aleksei Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Defence Committee, believes that if Moscow quickly shifts from its confrontational course, Russia may benefit in unexpected ways from unilateral American military action. If the war is short, the Bush administration may be interested in Russia's cooperation in Iraq's post-war stabilization and economic recovery. If the US military operation encounters difficulties, "the United States will seek Russia's assistance even more actively and will be ready to 'pay' in other spheres of [Russian-American] relations," Arbatov said.

See also:

Situation Around Iraq

eurasianet.org, March 18, 2003

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