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Moscow Times
April 2, 2003
If Iraq Wins, Russia Loses
By Andrei Piontkovsky

Whatever the outcome of the military operation in Iraq, the United States has already suffered a serious political setback. The blitzkrieg stalled. The Iraqi people aren't welcoming their liberators with open arms. Allied troops are engaged in a land war that will inevitably lead to significant casualties. More intensive reliance on allied air power will result in more civilian deaths. Both developments will fuel the growing anti-war movement that has gripped many countries, including the United States and Britain.

Russia's political elite has responded with a triumphant "We told you so" attitude. Television duly instilled that mood in society. As a Kremlin correspondent from Nezavisimaya Gazeta glumly observed in a recent article: "Those close to the president say that in the best-case scenario, the referendum in Chechnya would pass without a hitch, and the Americans would get bogged down in a drawn-out war with heavy casualties among allied forces as well as civilians."

According to a number of recent television polls, some 80 percent of Russians -- and probably more -- want Iraq to win the war.

An Iraqi victory would mean:

The retreat of allied forces from Iraqi territory and the Middle East generally;

The triumph of Islamist radicals and their rise to power in many Arab countries, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and their further spread into Central Asia;

The spread of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery mechanisms throughout the world;

A severe political crisis in the United States and the election of an isolationist administration bent on withdrawing from world affairs and building up the country's anti-missile defenses;

A rapid, uncontrolled increase in China's power and influence.

It's not hard to imagine the immediate impact such a tectonic shift in the geopolitical order would have on Russian national security. Russia would be left out and left behind in this brave new world.

Fortunately for Russia, the Iraqi victory that the majority of our citizens so selflessly hope for will not happen.

The Americans are going nowhere, because the only place to go from here is oblivion. They will oust Saddam Hussein, disarm Iraq and install a loyal regime in Baghdad. The price for this "victory" will be far higher than expected, as evidenced by the serious miscalculations already made by American political and military planners.

The Russian leadership rightly calls the war in Iraq a "major political mistake," but it must not lose sight of Russia's strategic interests and descend into knee-jerk anti-Americanism. If the war is a mistake, it has been made by our key partner in the global coalition, whose defeat would spell defeat for the coalition as a whole and result in an immediate and enormous threat to all of its members, including Russia. And perhaps for Russia most of all, ringed as we are by unstable regimes that could be quickly overrun by triumphant terrorists.

Moscow understands this and, therefore, softens its condemnation of the war by repeating insistently that Russia's strategic partnership with the United States, built up over the last year and a half, is so crucial to both countries that it cannot be scuttled by a difference of opinion over Iraq. This correct but not terribly exciting argument doesn't play well on television, however. The current spate of anti-American hate fests on just about every Russian television channel has proven much more effective in the ratings. The tone and language used in news coverage of the war cannot have been left to chance, especially on the state-owned and state-controlled stations.

Our tireless political strategists seem to have realized that whipping up anti-Chechen feelings to galvanize Russian society doesn't work all that well anymore. In preparation for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, they seem to be planning to rally the nation on the basis of anti-Americanism. And society, like an old war horse whose ears prick up at the familiar battle cry, is ready to respond with every last ounce of self-destructive passion.

This plan's success depends on cultivating the image of a strong, decisive president, but in fact it places Vladimir Putin in a classic Catch-22. If, as the responsible leader of his country, Putin should try to halt the growing anti-American hysteria at some point in order to preserve the diplomatic capital he has accumulated over the last 18 months, his actions would be interpreted as capitulation and a show of weakness. The Putin administration did much to set the current wave of anti-Americanism in motion, then quickly lost control of it. If Putin decides to ride that wave, he will be forced to adopt positions that directly conflict with his entire post-Sept. 11 foreign policy. His political opponents would rush to fill that breach, from the Communists to Boris Berezovsky, by reminding the nation of the U.S. bases in Central Asia, the bases that we closed in Vietnam and Cuba, and many other "concessions" made to Russia's past and present Enemy No. 1.

The current anti-American frenzy could lead Russia into a dead end in terms of both foreign and domestic policy. It must be stopped. Nothing obliges us to love the United States or to condone its every move. But Russian diplomacy should focus on cultivating Russian-American relations in such a way as to preserve the possibility of putting the power and influence of the world's lone superpower to work in the service of Russia's national interests, as we did in Central Asia, where a serious threat to Russian security on the southern border of the Commonwealth of Independent States was eliminated by the presence of American troops.

And that was not the last case where Russian and U.S. interests will coincide to our benefit.

Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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