It looks like déjà vu.
Twelve years ago, on the eve of the first Gulf War, the then-Soviet Union was balking at US-led military action against Iraq and threatening to use its UN Security Council veto. In hopes of splitting the Western coalition, Moscow sent Kremlin insider and Saddam-Hussein friend Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad to attempt to seal an 11th-hour peace deal.
Today, as the US gathers its forces around the Persian Gulf, Russia is hinting that it might veto any Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. And, yes, Mr. Primakov is once more in Baghdad, sent there on a secret peace mission by President Vladimir Putin.
Below the surface, however, times are very different. Though the Soviet Union worked throughout the long years of the cold war to drive a wedge between Europe and America, the Kremlin appears to have been blindsided by the latest transatlantic rift over how to deal with Iraq.
Russian policy experts are furiously debating how Moscow should behave if the issue of using military force on Iraq comes to a Security Council vote, as seems likely as early as this week. The key problem, many say, is how to extract the maximum benefits for Russia while doing the least harm, particularly to its fragile post-Sept. 11 partnership with the US.
"This presents Russia with a very serious dilemma," says Alexei Arbatov, a liberal lawmaker and deputy chair of the State Duma's defense committee. "Russia does not support the use of force in Iraq, but by casting our veto in the Security Council, we might appear to be a leader of an anti-American coalition. That could destroy everything we've gained in our relations with the US in the past couple of years.
Primakov, a professional Arab scholar whose experience includes being post-Soviet Russia's top spy master, foreign minister, and prime minister, met with Iraqi officials Sunday with a brief that experts say is aimed at strengthening the arguments for peace by pressuring Iraq into cooperating more fully with UN arms inspectors.
Some experts are urging Russian leaders to come out more forcefully in support of France and Germany, who are digging in their heels against US policy on Iraq.
"Whatever happens over Iraq, it is clear the post-cold-war order is going to undergo major changes," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "We are witnessing the emergence of a Europe that is far less dependent on the US, more assertive in putting forward its own position, and defending its own interests. Therefore, Russia has a strategic choice to make. In the long run, will we go with Europe, or the US?"
Mr. Kremeniuk and others maintain that since the collapse of the USSR, Moscow has failed in its attempts to forge a full-scale partnership with Washington. "The past two White House administrations have ignored the opportunity to tie Russia to the US, economically and politically," says Kremeniuk. "Therefore we have nothing to fear from any American backlash against us for supporting the French and German position on Iraq."
There is widespread bitterness in Russia over the decade-long US failure to grant Russia most-favored-nation trade status. And Russia is still smarting from recently imposed American tariffs against Russian steel exports. Some Russian nationalists also resent US backing for NATO's eastward expansion, and President Bush's unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty a year ago.
"For most of the past decade the US has treated Russia not as a friend, but as a potential geopolitical rival," says Sergei Markov, chairman of the Kremlin-connected Civic Council on International Affairs. "As a result, American economic partnership with Russia is next to zero, and its political engagement is very weak."
Conversely, in the past decade Moscow's commerce with Europe has grown rapidly and now accounts for more than half of all Russia's foreign trade turnover.
However, Mr. Markov cautions, Russia's post-Sept. 11 alliance with the US in fighting international terrorism remains a powerful common interest. "This is why Russia is hesitating now," he says. "The US remains a crucial ally in containing the threats of extremism and terrorism, one that Russia does not want to alienate."
Experts say that Russia has inherited many of the former USSR's motives for opposing war, including a traditional foreign-policy line that views Iraq as a valuable client state, major economic investments in Iraqi oil fields, and concern over how to collect the approximately $7 billion in Soviet-era debt that Hussein still owes Moscow.
But while other countries appear to be leading the anti-American charge, Russia is today a deeply conflicted bystander. "It's ironic that the old dream of the Soviet Kremlin - to see Europe and America at each other's throats, - is coming true and Moscow has no idea what to do about it," says Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the independent Center for Political Trends.