Russia rethinks its longtime support for Iraq

Cheney is in the Mideast to rally support for toppling Saddam Hussein, who owes Russia millions in debt.

Whenever Washington set its sights on Baghdad, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein knew he could count on Moscow for support.

Before American bombs began to drop in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, then-Soviet Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov met Mr. Hussein at his presidential palace. Then months later, with the heaviest air campaign in American history under way, Mr. Primakov made a risky run for Baghdad - his convoy smeared with mud, and headlights off - to help Hussein find a face-saving way out.

But now, despite Russia's continuing support for Iraq - Russia routinely backs Iraq in the UN Security Council, and mediated in the 1997 and 1998 US-Iraq crises - the Kremlin's view is changing.

As Vice President Dick Cheney embarked on a tough-sell Mideast tour yesterday, to build support for Washington's expansion of its "war on terrorism" to include toppling Iraq's Hussein, analysts say the Kremlin is adjusting its priorities and maximizing its opportunities to collect billions in debt and oil deals.

That result says as much about evolving US-Russia relations - and Mr. Putin's not-always-popular, pro-West strategy - as it does about Moscow souring on Baghdad. "Russia's first objective is not to allow this military action in Iraq - whatever it might be - to jeopardize the level of US-Russia relations that has been achieved," says Oksana Antonenko, a Russia specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

"Russia is quite fed up with [Hussein] anyway," Ms. Antonenko says. "The judgment in the Kremlin is that if the US commits very strongly to action against Iraq, Russia would work within the broader coalition."

Moscow's key demands will be to ensure that up to $20 billion in debt arrears, current oil deals, and other contracts are respected; that Russia's interests are respected by any post-Hussein regime; and that any action is given at least a fig leaf of international legitimacy by the UN.

Branded by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil" that is bent on creating weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has been the subject of the tightest sanctions in modern history for more than a decade. It kicked out UN weapons inspectors in 1998 and refuses to let them return.

Before Sept. 11, the launch of the global US military campaign, and a subsequent blossoming of US-Russia ties, Moscow opposed Washington's effort to tighten Iraqi sanctions so they would have a greater impact on the regime than on civilians.

But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov - arriving in Washington for a three-day visit on Monday - made clear that "Baghdad must accept weapons inspectors under the UN aegis, to stop the concern of the world community."

"Sept. 11 really did mark a Rubicon in Putin's strategy," says Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state and head of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in New Haven, Conn.

Putin has "seized upon" the subsequent tolerance in Russia to build US-Russia ties "because of the common threat."

"[Russians] also see Saddam Hussein as dangerous," Talbott says. "But they also have very real economic interests." Even more important, Talbott adds, is that Russia "not be yet again left aside, while Uncle Sam struts his stuff."

Already the events after Sept. 11 have transformed the geostrategic horizons of both countries. While Moscow disagrees with the US list of "axis of evil" countries, which include Iran and North Korea, besides Iraq, it has permitted the US military to build semipermanent bases throughout former Soviet states of Central Asia to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Before Sept. 11, Russia was fingered as a key proliferator of weapons-of-mass-destruction expertise, it opposed NATO expansion, and fumed at Washington's determination to pull out of cornerstone arms-control treaties. After September, the Kremlin barely whimpered when Bush announced the US was abandoning the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. In exchange for softening its positions, Russia expected greater understanding from the US on several key issues. But, surprising to many Russians - who have cast their war against Chechen separatists as a struggle against terrorists that mirrors the US campaign and expected less US criticism in exchange for helping the US in its war - was the US State Department's annual human rights report, published Monday. Russian forces in Chechnya "demonstrated little respect for basic human rights," it said, citing "numerous reports of extra-judicial killings." Russia's foreign ministry called the report "odious," and written "as if the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had not occurred."

"[The Kremlin] has invested so much in this pro-American, pro-West posture, if it opposes the US on a marginal issue like Iraq, that investment will go up in smoke. And what for?" says Dmitri Trenin, a Russian policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

"The change has occurred in the Russian view of American resolve: The new thing is the political will that exists in Washington," Mr. Trenin says. "Russians will not be enthusiasts of the operation [in Iraq], but they are realizing that their opposition will reap no benefit."

With $15 billion to $20 billion at stake - some $8 billion in Soviet-era military debt, and billions more in oil deals - Russia is now calculating that a new regime could ensure a payback.

"The Russians are better aware of their limitations," Trenin says. "You only get your money if you play along with the US. You will get nothing if you oppose them."

That may be the Kremlin plan. "Putin believes that Russia's destiny is with the West," says Talbott. "That is where the money is. And he knows he needs that investment and support for Russia to make it as a modern economy."

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