Iraq's Odious Debts

Analysis: Russia-U.S. ties strained by war

Anthony Louis
United Press International
April 2, 2003

MOSCOW, April 2 (UPI) — Russia-U.S. ties were further strained by the war in Iraq Wednesday when the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow to protest the continued bombing of an area of Baghdad, this time near the Russian Embassy.

In a strongly worded statement, the ministry said Moscow “demanded that the American authorities take urgent and exhaustive measures so that such dangerous and unacceptable incidents are not repeated in future.”

The ministry said the bombing of a residential area of Baghdad near the Russian Embassy had placed “the security of Russian diplomatic staff under direct threat.”

Later in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked that “for political and economic reasons, Russia is not interested in seeing the defeat of the United States in Iraq.”

Speaking while on a trip to the town of Tambov, 200 miles southeast of Moscow, Putin reiterated his position that Moscow is “interested in bringing the Iraqi problem back within the framework of the United Nations” — an understandable position as Russia seeks to retain its post-Cold War status and influence as a permanent, veto-wielding member of the U. N. Security Council.

The two statements reflect the continuing debate in top political circles as to how far Moscow should risk going in damaging already sour relations with Washington. Russia seeks, at the same time, to keep up official condemnation of the war while providing a sign to Washington that the Kremlin is no longer such a full-hearted supporter of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Early on, Russia placed itself firmly in the anti-war camp by aligning with France and Germany and effectively blocking a U.S.-British bid to win approval for war at the U.N. Security Council.

As war broke out, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov condemned the U.S.-led attack as “illegal and doomed to failure.”

However, as time goes by, harsh words are gradually being replaced with more pragmatic pronouncements.

In an interview Tuesday with Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s biggest circulation tabloids, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov referred to the thorny issue of Iraq’s $7.5 billion debt to Russia, admitting for the first time that “Saddam is neither friend nor brother to us, and he will never repay (Iraq’s) debts to us.”

Ivanov also reflected continuing bitterness in the Kremlin over Washington’s decision to launch the war without U.N. endorsement. “It’s a question of precedent — today the United States doesn’t like Iraq, tomorrow Syria, then Iran, North Korea, and then what: someone else?”

Relations with Washington have been further strained in the past few days as Moscow angrily rejected U.S. allegations that Russian firms supplied sensitive military equipment to Iraq as “war propaganda.” Moscow also protested increased operations of U-2 spy planes near the Russian-Georgian border, when Russian fighter jets were scrambled to shadow the U. S. planes.

And in a snub to Washington, the state Duma, the lower house of parliament, has put off ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty because of the Iraq crisis.

Another factor is Russia’s commercial interest in Iraq. Moscow has raised concerns that its significant oil contracts in Iraq must be respected by any post-war administration in Iraq. Amid widespread fears that all Iraqi oilfields will be split between U.S. and British oil companies once hostilities end, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin declared that Russia would insist the old contracts stand and be honored under international law.

In an interview with the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, Vershbow offered that the Bush administration would “seek ways of respecting Russian economic interests in the framework of joint work with the U.N. or other organizations.”

But the U.S. envoy hastened to add that Washington “can offer no guarantees,” leaving the subject open to interpretation.

However, leading political analysts have dismissed the notion that U.S.-Russian ties will be permanently damaged by the war.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said the war “will not ruin Russian-American strategic relations.”

“That is not in our interests,” he told a Russian radio station.

Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Lukin, a leading member of Yavlinsky’s party and a former ambassador to Washington, told Russia’s Channel One television network that the “partnership with the U.S. is in Russia’s vital interests and is unavoidable.”

“The Russian-U.S. relationship has been damaged, it has suffered psychologically and … there is a different chemistry, no longer pleasant, not confrontational, but cold and reserved,” Lukin said.

“We should not be emotionally attached to Saddam Hussein’s regime, we need to think ahead,” Lukin said.

“But what is important is that by doing what it has done, America has sharply lowered the threshold for starting military operations,” he said, noting, “It is in Russia’s interests that the threshold be raised again.”

Pro- and anti-war observers agree that, for now, Russia — both on the official and street level — will enjoy seeing the United States humiliated in a series of mishaps and setbacks in Iraq in retaliation for President George W. Bush’s snub of the United Nations, even as the eventual outcome of the war, and the need for a post-war reconciliation with Washington, become increasingly apparent.

Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said the Russian public’s condemnation of U.S. strikes on Iraq is driven in large part by anti-American feeling, with a widespread perception that Washington had acted as a bully by ignoring the international community’s opposition to war.

Ryzhkov noted that while Putin condemned the war as “unjustified” and a “mistake,” he stopped short of calling it an “aggression,” a term favored by many outspoken Russian legislators when describing U.S. actions in Iraq.

Andrei Piontkovsky of Moscow’s Strategic Studies Center said many Russian officials held the view that the United States should suffer another “Vietnam syndrome” that would teach the Bush administration a harsh lesson and rule out future U.S.-led military campaigns of such scale.

Piontkovsky warned that “it is necessary to end the anti-American hysteria that has caught up our media, especially because it can bring us to a dead end in foreign policy.”

“The self-preservation instinct dictates the necessity of a geopolitical alliance with (the United States),” he said, stressing that “nobody demands that we love the United States.”

With polls showing almost 90 percent of Russians opposed to war, anti-American sentiment at an all-time high of 55 percent, up from 15 percent last summer, and the chance of a significant setback for U.S. forces in Iraq still possible, the Bush administration must accept that the Kremlin will continue to play to a receptive home crowd by taking potshots at America for a little while longer.

Vershbow admitted recently that Putin may be feeling hurt because he had “not received enough in return for his post-9/11 cooperation” in joining the anti-Taliban coalition. Another factor is the continued pledge by the Bush administration to lift discriminatory anti-Russian trade legislation, the Jackson-Vanik amendment imposed by Congress during the Cold War. Officials in Moscow bitterly laugh that Washington vows to scrap the legislation every time it wants Moscow’s support, but fails to act on its word.

Despite the rhetoric coming from Moscow, a senior U.S. diplomat here noted that the personal relationship between Putin and Bush was still good. The diplomat stressed that, while agreeing to disagree on some issues, Putin had confirmed his invitation to Bush to visit the Russian president’s hometown of St. Petersburg at the end of May as part of the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations.

As the diplomat put it, “our bilateral ties will weather this storm,” even if the relationship becomes more sober now that the honeymoon is over.

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