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Date: Tue, 01 Apr 2003
From: Peter Rutland <prutland@wesleyan.edu>
Subject: Jamestown Foundation Russia and Eurasia Review

Current and back issues of the Jamestown Foundation RUSSIA AND EURASIA REVIEW are available on the web, free of charge, at www.jamestown.org. It is also possible to sign up for free email delivery.

Peter Rutland
Government Department
Wesleyan University
Middletown CT 06459

Russia and Eurasia Review
Volume 2, Issue 7
April 1, 2003
By Pavel K. Baev

Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace
Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO; www.prio.no).

Despite all the excitement the Second Gulf War is generating, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on the desperate maneuvering that took place in the UN Security Council in the final prewar weeks. It is too easy to dismiss that diplomatic dance as an empty show, since the failure to reach a consensus has important implications for the as yet uncertain constellation of actors, including Russia, that will be involved in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

At the start of the year it was widely expected that Moscow would delay its final choice until the last possible moment, bargaining with both camps in order to maximize its gains. Putin's unequivocal entry into the Franco-German antiwar camp clearly went against those expectations, and it appears to be much out of character. After all, in view of Putin's efforts to cultivate a personal friendship with George W. Bush, his readiness to sacrifice it for the dubious pleasure of the company of Messrs. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder requires explanation. Three are currently on offer by the political "technologists" in Moscow: An economic one, emphasizing oil interests; an electoral one, referring to public and elite opinion; and a geopolitical one, featuring multipolarity a la Yevgeny Primakov.


There is a persistent, almost metaphysical, line of thinking that portrays oil as the major motive behind every political move. Accordingly, Putin's antiwar stance is explained by the U.S. inattentiveness to Russia's oil interests in Iraq. Stretched strategically, this argument maintains that the U.S. goal is to establish control over Iraq's oil fields, destroy OPEC and secure a long period of low oil prices--which, obviously, runs against Russia's interests.

But is the Second Gulf War really all about oil? The direct costs of the war, which this time around will not be covered by donations from generous allies, are of such a scale that no hypothetical oil profits could possibly compensate for them.

There is also reason to doubt the role attributed to Russia's oil giants in this explanation. Indeed, it can be asked whether the big Russian oil companies ever really had firm expectations of a postwar oil bonanza. After all, it was Saddam and not Cheney & Co. who kicked Lukoil out of the West Qurna project last December. In addition, one also wonders to what degree Putin is inclined to let the oil interests drive Russian foreign policy. Witness his all too visible irritation with the pleas of Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky--at a recent presidential meeting with the "captains of industry"--to fight governmental corruption. And Russian oil concessions are a form of capital outflow and have little if anything to do with domestic economic growth, which is Putin's main concern. Overall, with regard to the long term interests of the oil industry in the global market, it would be much more helpful to march as part of the winning coalition rather than to boo the parade from the sidelines.


Public opinion has emerged as one of the key forces shaping the trajectory of the Second Gulf War, so it appears logical to apply this reasoning to Russia. Indeed, the prevailing attitude in Russian society (which is by no means pacifist) is that the war is unjust, driven by greed and colored by arrogance. Political elites are remarkably united on the antiwar platform that organically combines various breeds of anti-Americanism: from old Cold War cliches to more recent acrimonies stimulated by Kosovo, to irritation about U.S. troops in Central Asia and U.S. reconnaissance flights over Georgia. The electoral season in Russia is just half a year away, so the argument that Putin is reluctant to antagonize public opinion or upset key elite groups appears solid.

On closer scrutiny, however, this looks less convincing. The Second Gulf War is nowhere near the top of public concerns, so the antiwar attitude does not go very deep and Putin would have few troubles challenging it. Giving a green light to a U.S. intervention in Iraq would have been a much less controversial step than was approving U.S. troop deployments in the former Soviet South. With respect to the elections, Putin's cabal has established such firm control over the media that "selling" a moderately pro-U.S. line would not be a problem. Vladimir Zhirinovsky might embark on a drunken escapade in Baghdad (ensuring reelection for his party in December's State Duma election), but real domestic constraints that might force Putin to abandon a position of benevolent abstention (as opposed to threatening a veto in the UN Security Council) are all but nonexistent.


Geopolitics has always been a dull but solid factor in Russian political thinking. If you happen to constitute a major portion of the Eurasian "heartland," you do not want to question its existence. The notion that Russia must oppose the U.S. strategy of establishing a hegemonic world order has more supporters than does the narrower interpretation, that Russia should stop the U.S. encroachment into the "heart" of Eurasia (first through Afghanistan, and now through Iraq).

It is not entirely clear what is wrong with a "unipolar" world--especially since a "multipolar" world achieves its stability through international conflict. More practically, Russia is just too weak to perform the balancing "polar" function. In a geopolitical world, large size is more a burden than a blessing, since more dynamic neighbors are craving loose bits of your territory. Why would Russia's interests be harmed in a unipolar world, one where the United States shouldered the burden of managing regional conflicts, checking the proliferation of WMD (weapons of mass destruction), and toppling dictatorial regimes. (Unless, that is, you count Russia's quasi-democratic sort of order as one of the latter.) France might have a full menu of reasons why it opposes American "hyper-power," but Russia should really be careful selecting from it.


There must, then, be more to Putin's resolute stance in opposition to the war than the thin gruel of oil greed, electoral calculations and geopolitical illusions.

We may never know all the motivations. But one thing that should never be forgotten is how quickly one particular low to middle level bureaucrat has adopted the "L'etat, c'est moi" attitude. This has not made him a greater statesman, but it has visibly diminished his inclination to solicit, not to say listen to, expert advice. Foreign policy making has become so intimately private that complicated economic calculations or clumsy geopolitical constructs could hardly have much place in it. When the going gets tough, Putin gets personal.

Putin could perhaps have played the role of Bush's "best friend in need"--but that spot was claimed from the very beginning by Tony Blair. Competing with characters like Jose Maria Aznar or Silvio Berlusconi for the dubious privilege of being the "second best friend" was not particularly appealing. Unlike Blair, who is driven by considerations regarding the strategic Atlantic alliance, for Putin politics is personal, pragmatic and driven by prestige. The well known "look in the eye" between Bush and Putin was not the start of a beautiful friendship, but a handy boost to Putin's image.

In the current crisis, Putin's desire for self-aggrandizement apparently required some distancing from the U.S. antiterrorist drive. One handy by-product of the policy switch is that European leaders are now falling over themselves to forget their earlier concerns about the war in Chechnya. And given the ongoing "war on terror," it is very unlikely that the U.S. administration would reconsider the Chechen groupings that have already made it to the list of terrorist organizations.

Evaluating the first fruits of the "we shall live in peace" political line, we can hardly say it was all tactics. That is because Moscow missed every opportunity to exploit to its own advantage the stubborn French lead in the "chicken-veto" game by presenting a more flexible alternative. Nor did Putin seize the opportunity of Bush's telephone call to save the remnants of the "friendship." Instead he solemnly proclaimed the war a "big political mistake." While China was wisely keeping a low profile, Putin seems to have been driven by the desire to be seen at the very center of a big diplomatic clash, thereby proving his importance. Chirac's remark about the Central Europeans who "missed their chance to remain silent" is perhaps more appropriately applied to Russia.

But now Putin's five minutes of pacifist glory are over and he has to admit this to himself: that if I want to get into the "winners club," I cannot start from here. France and Germany have quite a few assets to deploy in the forthcoming reconstruction of the Middle East, but it is not so clear what Russia can bring to the table.

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