IRAQ: The Russian perspective
Konstantin Eggert

January 31, 2006

The Russian position regarding any US withdrawal from Iraq is not at all clear. Indeed, Russia`s policy vis--vis Iraq, so active prior to the March 2003 operation by the US and allied forces, today is pretty much invisible.

The Russian ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) Website search engine produces 146 mentions of Iraq in different contexts by Russian officials and parliamentarians since that date. This is not much for nearly three years. Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Russian interest in Iraq has waned. There are several reasons for this.

One is a sharp change in Russia`s economic perspectives in Iraq. No one expects things to get back to the level of 2001-2002 any time soon. At the time, estimates put trade turnover between the two countries at $2 billion. Half of it was revenue from sales of Iraqi oil by Russian middlemen, the other from supplies of Russian goods to Baghdad under the `oil-for-food` program.

Companies like LUKOIL expected Iraqis to land them substantive deals, like developing the massive Western Qurna-2 oil field. Talks on these contracts continue with the new Iraqi authorities, but are still very far from completion. To quote Yelena Suponina, one of Russia`s most eminent analysts of the Middle East, `the good thing, from the point of view of Moscow, is that the talks go on at all`.

Another reason is Russia`s - and Vladimir Putin`s - painful memories of policy failure on the eve of the invasion. Moscow`s opposition - together with Paris and Berlin - to the American-led operation nearly led to serious crisis in its relations with Washington. It was prevented only because George W. Bush and his administration chose to `forgive` Russia. From that moment on, Russia had to face the inevitable loss of its assets in Iraq to those of coalition partners.

The third reason has a lot to do with psychology. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia`s political class (and a large chunk of the population) craving for at least some kind of return to the Soviet-era imperial might and projection of influence. Hence the Russian insistence on the UN`s exclusive role in global affairs, and its instinctive anti-Americanism. In these circumstances, any ally was seen by Moscow as an asset.

Dictators like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein used this to the full, playing on ideological weakness and corruption in Russia`s political class. The Volker commission report showed that Moscow`s advocacy of Saddam was strengthened by kickbacks from Iraqi oil sales to several Russian public figures. Saddam Hussein successfully used Moscow as his international advocate.

The lightning speed with which Saddam`s regime collapsed and American military technology and prowess stunned the Russian political and military elites, which as late as March 20, 2003, predicted, in the words of Russian military intelligence analysts that, `Baghdad will become the Iraqi Stalingrad`. After these predictions turned out wrong, Putin decided to adopt a low profile on Iraqi matters.

Today, official Moscow limits itself to calls for an increased role for the UN in Iraq (which the organization hardly wants for itself) as well as expressing concern that the Sunnis are not getting a fair deal in the new Iraq.

However, foreign ministry officials recently took to publicly calling Iraqi insurgents `terrorists`, and Russian state TV, which generally does not dedicate much time to Iraq, scaled down the use of the expression `resistance fighters`, a sign that the Kremlin does not want to irritate the US any more than necessary.

Nevertheless, the invasion is invoked by Russians every time talk turns to possible future developments in the Middle East, especially Iran. `We know the record of sanctions against Iraq. We know what this led to. And we still have to deal with the effects of the situation Iraq has found itself in`, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov wrote on December 28 last year in an article on the MFA`s Website.

The exercise of Western might in Iraq in 2003 (like NATO`s Kosovo operation in 1999) serves Moscow as a constant reminder of Russia`s relative insignificance in global affairs. These events are also reflected in the psyche of ordinary Russians as threatening proof of America`s `evil intentions` toward Russia itself.

In this respect, hardly anybody here mentions the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein`s regime or his occupation of Kuwait in 1990. The emphasis is always on the fact that Iraqi sovereignty was violated and that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which served as a pretext for invasion, were not found.

Russia still lives in a Westphalian world where sovereignty is queen. In a way, Moscow`s attitude to Iraq reflects Russian feelings of insecurity, both external and domestic, and their deep suspicions of the West.

Konstantin Eggert is the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau editor. The views expressed in the article are his own, and do not reflect any position held by the BBC. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org