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#14 - JRL 7175
Wall Street Journal
May 9, 2003
Putin Risks Widening the Rift
Ms. Antonenko is senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Russia's current opposition to the lifting of U.N. sanctions against Iraq threatens to isolate Moscow on the world stage and provoke a major crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. This week, the U.S. Treasury announced plans to unilaterally lift some of the sanctions, and plans to table a new resolution at the U.N. Security Council to dispose of the rest. The French ambassador to the U.N. has also called for the immediate suspension of U.N. sanctions, leaving Russia as the only country on the Security Council that continues to support the sanctions. Russia continues to insist that sanctions be lifted only after U.N. inspectors have certified that Iraq is WMD-free.

This puts Russia on a collision course with the U.S. and undermines its so-far carefully managed policy of strategic ambiguity on Iraq. That policy made it possible for Russia to come out of the previous diplomatic deadlock at the U.N. without undermining relations with either side of the Atlantic. But now Russia risks further weakening the U.N. and marginalizing its own role not only on Iraq but in international relations in general.

Throughout the diplomatic crisis over the second U.N. resolution authorizing use of force against the regime of Saddam Hussein, and later during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Russian policy followed a pragmatically ambiguous strategy. On one hand, Russian leaders consistently stated their opposition to the U.S. and U.K. commitment to disarm Iraq by military force and bring about regime change in Baghdad. On the other hand, President Vladimir Putin made it clear that, whatever happened in Iraq, Russia would not abandon its course of pro-Western integration or the U.S.-Russian strategic partnership, which Mr. Putin has carefully cultivated since 9/11.

These two priorities put Moscow in the unusual (considering its recent history) role of maintaining the trans-Atlantic dialogue between Washington, Paris and Berlin. In contrast to French President Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the Russian president kept his personal channel of communication with Washington open throughout the crisis. Not only has Mr. Putin refrained from using megaphone diplomacy in his dialogue with foreign leaders, but -- despite public attitudes in Russia -- he also limited his domestic political rhetoric to simply calling the U.S.-led military action "a mistake."Mr. Putin's decision to send Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin to the U.S. in the midst of the diplomatic crisis at the U.N. raised suspicions that behind the scenes a deal was being struck between Moscow and Washington. Even today, many key players in Washington and London believe that Moscow would have abstained on the second U.N. resolution if it had come to a vote.

This ambiguity in Russia's policy has been effective in strengthening Russia's international role. Russia managed to preserve, although in a much weakened form, the post-September 11 warmth in U.S.-Russian relations. At the same time, Russia's role vis-a-vis its key European allies was strengthened. Skeptics in Moscow were able to see that Russia was no longer keen to weaken the U.S. role in Europe by exploiting and cultivating trans-Atlantic divisions.

A further effect of Mr. Putin's approach was to improve relations with Muslim and Arab states in the run-up to the Iraq war. These had previously been undermined first by Russia's refusal to support some Arab regimes who had been Soviet-era allies, then by Russia's strong anti-Islamic rhetoric in relation to external support for Chechen rebels, and finally by Moscow's recent rapprochement with Washington.

Given all these positive results, why has Mr. Putin seemingly chosen this moment to risk upsetting relations with Washington and London? The unusually public display of President Putin's frustration with American and British policies on Iraq during Tony Blair's visit to Moscow last week surprised many people, including the British prime minister himself. Mr. Blair, standing alongside Mr. Putin, cannot have enjoyed the latter's rhetorical question: "Where are those arsenals of mass destruction, if indeed they ever existed?"

Moreover, Mr. Putin made it clear that Russia will not work to make it any easier for the coalition to bring stability and security to Iraq. Not only has Mr. Putin refused to lift sanctions or provide economic relief to Iraq by replacing the oil for food program, he has also refused to recognize the legitimacy of any interim U.S.-run government in Iraq.

Mr. Putin's position could be dismissed as tactical bargaining, seeking to extract more promises from the collation on Russia's access to Iraqi oil revenues. Similarly, it might be explained as caving into domestic political pressure to appear tough in the face of the Anglo-American coalition. And finally, it's possible that President Putin, as careful as he might be in his political rhetoric, simply could not resist the temptation to vindicate his position by exploiting a clear area of embarrassment for Washington and London, that weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein himself remains at large most likely inside Iraq.

But an alternative and more plausible interpretation of Putin's public clash with Blair on Iraq is that Moscow feels increasingly marginalized in the post-Iraq-war period and that the Russian President has not yet decided how to balance his short term economic and long-term strategic interests in regard to postwar developments in Iraq.

According to this view, Russia's role became increasingly irrelevant after Washington lost interest in reaching a diplomatic compromise in the U.N., where Moscow could have played the role of kingmaker.

The danger for Moscow now is that the longer trans-Atlantic divisions continue, the more marginalized Russia's role will become. Rather than sniping at Washington and London, Russia needs to consolidate its position as a trans-Atlantic consensus broker, working alongside the U.K., and thus help to bring the U.S. back to the U.N. table. Mr. Putin needs to adopt a more proactive policy built around common interests.

One such interest is to achieve stabilization in Iraq in the shortest possible time. The second is to start rebuilding a trans-Atlantic consensus and reviving damaged institutions including the U.N., but also NATO and the EU, which could serve as engines for Russia's integration. And finally, the third interest is to continue the war on terrorism, focusing on enhancing stability in wider Central Asia.

Renewed U.S. interests in the U.N. process could further reinforce Russia's role and bring it the real economic benefits proposed in the draft U.S. resolution. If Mr. Putin wants to resume Russia's influential position in the middle of the trans-Atlantic relationship, he needs to repair the damage done to relations with the U.S., not increase the tension.

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