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BBC Monitoring
Russian website suggests Putin got it wrong over Iraq
Source: Gazeta.ru web site, Moscow, in Russian 3 Apr 03

Vladimir Putin has played his hand badly in the Iraqi crisis, according to a Russian political website. He tried to hedge his bets, so that Russia could gain whichever side won the war or the tussle between Washington and "old Europe". But he wrongly expected the Americans to get bogged down in Iraq, and meanwhile he has fallen out with Europe over Chechnya. The result is that Russia loses whatever the outcome. Worse still, he has taken domestic political risks - and these could come back to haunt him as he seeks re-election. The following is an excerpt from an analysis by the gazeta.ru website on 3 April, with subheadings inserted editorially:

The Russian president's most recent statements on the need to return the Iraq issue to the United Nations Security Council show that the Kremlin has finally come to realize what problems lie ahead no matter how the war in Iraq turns out.

America vs "old Europe"

Iraq is a kind of political roulette wheel on which other countries are playing a game. Some are betting on American victory, others on defeat. He who makes the right call will break the bank. He who doesn't loses everything. He who doesn't join in the game automatically winds up in the loser's camp, since there is no provision for a draw...

You can't bet on red and black at the same time. But this is precisely what Putin tried to do.

Escalation of the conflict between the United States and "old Europe" has led to a situation where the stakes in the game have risen many times over. Let us imagine just for a minute that the United Nations Security Council approved the war in Iraq. In that case, the spoils of victory would be shared by all the coalition participants. And there would simply not be enough spoils to go round. We saw this after the war in 1991, when the victors simply contained Iraq with the help of international sanctions, insofar as they could not divide it up. In today's scenario it made no sense to repeat the experience of 1991 - and indeed, the United States could not afford such a luxury. Therefore, conflict in the UN Security Council was unavoidable.

Russia initially attempted to balance itself between supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq. At times Putin declared that war was unacceptable. At other times he said that he did not rule war out under certain conditions. In a situation of severe conflict this position is clearly a loser, insofar as Russia winds up "out of the game" whatever the outcome. In the final analysis, Putin was pushed into assuming a tougher position on the side of opponents of the war. In other words, at the very last moment Russia wound up in the camp of those who are "selling short", speculating on a fall.

The risks Putin took

For Putin this is a very great risk. After 11 September 2001 he chose partnership with the Americans. American bases appeared in the former USSR, something previously considered impossible. But "friendship" with the United States allowed this to be viewed not as "giving in," but as "providing assistance" to our partners in the antiterrorist coalition. Putin moved a very great distance towards rapprochement with the United States, to a great extent in defiance of Russia's elite, primarily the Russian military. He succeeded in overcoming opposition within the country by virtue of his high prestige in society.

However, the Iraqi crisis made all his efforts null and void. Putin lacked the decisiveness to continue along his prior course of providing support to Bush.

At the same time, neither did the president want open confrontation with the United States. In the end, under pressure from "old Europe" and Russian elite, Putin was compelled to move towards rejection of "partnership" with the United States.

Right now Russia is playing in the "sell short" mode. It is betting on the premise that the Americans are tied up in Iraq...

Where it all went wrong

The Americans will not be able to wage a prolonged war - public outcries will intensify both in the United States and in Europe. Time is playing against Bush and his team...

If the Americans are forced to leave Iraq and begin lengthy negotiations on peace and disarmament, Russia will then have a chance to preserve its economic position in Iraq and even strengthen its political influence there. Continuation of the sanctions against Iraq will suit Russia just fine, since this will limit the flow of Iraqi oil into world markets. But the development of events in Iraq indicates that such a scenario is becoming ever less likely with each day the war continues.

Another problem lies in the fact that there is not yet any "partnership" between Russia and a United Europe. This is manifest most graphically when we look at the situation in Chechnya. It is somewhat ill-considered to protest against the war in Iraq and simultaneously insist that the war in Chechnya is justified. This was demonstrated by the PACE [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe] session that recommended that a tribunal be convened on Chechnya. So we need not talk about "partnership" between Russia and Europe in the foreseeable future - especially since Europe does not yet comprise a unified political entity. Right now we are only talking about a tactical alliance on the issue of the war in Iraq.

So we see that Russia has damaged its relations with the United States but has not compensated for it by drawing closer to Europe. This means that after the war, it will be very difficult for Russia to protect its interests, deprived as it is of strong allies. In fact, Russia will be compelled to act alone. It is questionable whether or not the country has sufficient political resources to do this.

But if the United States succeeds in overthrowing Saddam in the very near future, the situation may turn into a serious internal political crisis for Russia. Failure in the international arena and falling prices of oil will affect the election campaign and the consequences of this may be most unpredictable. Public opinion may hold Putin accountable for the utter failure of foreign policy and unresolved domestic problems. In such a situation, it will be no simple matter, to put it mildly, for Putin to get re-elected to a second term of office.

Apparently the president realizes full well the pitfalls that await him regardless of the outcome of the war in Iraq. For this reason, he has not lost hope of assuming some kind of "zero posture", as can be seen in his statement on the need to return the process of Iraqi disarmament to the United Nations. But it is already impossible to stop the game or take it to a "draw". The bets have been placed. The wheel is spinning. The only thing left to do is see where the ball lands - on red or black.

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