To U.S. dismay, Russia standing firm on Iraq war

Bush administration thought Putin eventually would rally to U.S. side

March 07, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - For months now, the White House has been trying to play the Russia card.

But Russia refuses to be played.

Bush administration officials regarded the Kremlin as the key to persuading the United Nations Security Council to endorse military action against Iraq and predicted privately that in the end, Russia would rally to the U.S. side.

But President Vladimir V. Putin has joined France and Germany in their opposition to the use of force. Despite high-level lobbying, including phone calls from President Bush, Putin has maintained that position for two weeks.

"Obviously, the picture has become a little darker with every passing day," a senior U.S. diplomat said yesterday, speaking on condition his name not be used.

The Bush administration still hopes that Russia can be persuaded to lend support.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are expected to meet today at the United Nations after arms inspectors present their latest report, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert, may come to Moscow within days. But no one is confidently predicting Russian support.

"I certainly don't think they've made a decision to veto," the American diplomat said. "But people are much more uncertain as to Russia's ultimate destination than they were a few weeks ago."

So far, France has borne the brunt of Bush administration criticism for failing to support the use of force, but that could soon change.

"This is not a small issue that can be fenced off," the U.S. diplomat warned. "This is central to our relationship. A [Russian] veto would inherently damage our relationship."

A split over Iraq could complicate efforts to defuse the nuclear crisis in North Korea, mediate between Israel and the Palestinians and broker solutions to other conflicts.

In counting on Russia for so long, the White House appears to have made a few miscalculations. It was thought that Putin would endorse the use of force against Iraq rather than, in the White House view, risk undermining the authority of the Security Council, where Russia holds a veto. He was also expected to be swayed by the opportunity for Russia to participate in any post-war reconstruction of Iraq, including development of Iraqi oil fields. Iraq owes Moscow $8 billion for equipment and loans secured during the Soviet era.

In arguing against a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, France, Russia and Germany have cited moral concerns about waging war, but have also wanted to hold the world's sole superpower in check.

"The fact that the United States dominates the world is setting teeth on edge," said Rustam Orudzhayev of the Moscow-based Science and Politics Foundation.

"The crux of the problem is, the United States is too powerful, too uncontrolled," said Viktor V. Kremenyuk, deputy director of Russia's Institute of USA and Canada Studies. "The United States thinks it has the moral and legal right to judge other nations and decide what to do with them."

Many educated Russians complain that Russia received nothing in return for closing bases in Cuba and Vietnam, and for letting the Bush administration abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. They note that their government did not protest the expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and silently accepted deployment of American troops in former Soviet republics in Central Asia and Georgia.

After an amicable summit between Putin and Bush in Moscow and St. Petersburg last May, many hoped that U.S. markets would open to Russian steel and uranium, which did not happen.

"Mr. Putin felt that he was used," said Kremenyuk. "And he doesn't wish to be used. Now I think he is inclined to think seriously about the partnership with Mr. Bush."

While Putin has criticized Bush's policies, he has praised him as a friend. Last month, Putin said he approved of the American military presence in the Persian Gulf region, saying the disarmament process would not have made as much progress without it.

If he is in a cynical mood, Putin has a strong motive for prolonging tensions.

High oil prices in recent years have been the most important factor in Russia's economic recovery, and 40 percent of government revenues are tied to oil profits. Tensions over Iraq have driven the price of oil to about $32 a barrel. If the threat of war ebbs, prices could drop, perhaps by 30 percent.

Putin may also be looking to improve ties with Western Europe. Germany is Russia's most important trading partner, and France maintains close cultural ties.

"Europe is our partner," said Orudzhayev. "For Russia, it brings more benefits to play on their side, though keeping the United States in mind."

A recent public opinion poll showed that 90 percent of Russians surveyed oppose a U.S.-led war against Iraq, the Interfax news agency reported. But not everyone here thinks Putin has chosen the right path.

Sergei Yushenkov, a deputy in the State Duma, the powerful lower house of the Russian parliament, says the Kremlin is too focused on competing for political influence and doesn't recognize the terrorist threat that regimes such as Iraq's pose to the rest of the world.

"It's a short-sighted policy," he said in an interview yesterday. "It leaves the impression that dictatorial regimes do not stir up feelings of revulsion in the Kremlin."

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