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Iraq war's impact on Russia

Putin already understands that he has let Russia slide too far in its opposition to the United States, and there are efforts on both sides of the ocean to initiate damage control.
Iraq war's impact on Russia
by Lilia Shevtsova, The Moscow Times, April 30, 2003

The majority of pundits would say that war in Iraq has had no impact on Russia, but they are wrong. The Iraqi debacle has already produced implications for Russia's international role and domestic developments. The question is whether these implications are for the short or long term.

First, the Iraqi crisis has provided proof that Russia does matter, to the surprise of many analysts who had written Russia off. Moscow's siding with Paris strengthened French opposition to the United States and thus, indirectly and definitely unintentionally, helped to deepen the rift between the Western allies. I even suspect that if Russia had not condemned the United States too strongly and hinted that it would abstain vis-a-vis the second resolution on Iraq, the United States would have stood a chance of getting it endorsed by the Security Council, thus legitimizing the war.

A new opportunity for international leverage has now opened for Russia: siding with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and supporting his scenario of going to the U.N. for the Iraqi peace settlement. Russia could serve as a bridge between the allies, facilitating fence-mending. The idea of Russia in the role of mediator between Western powers may sound far-fetched, but it is quite possible. French President Jacques Chirac would surely be less vocal in blasting Washington without President Vladimir Putin to back him. Unfortunately, to date Moscow has failed to make use of this opportunity.

As for the domestic impact of events in and around Iraq, they have provoked the consolidation of Russia's hard-liners and nationalists, have sown confusion among liberals and led to a surge of anti-Americanism that could easily turn into a new tide of anti-Western sentiment. This is hardly conducive to advancing the agenda for a new stage of liberal reform.

Fortunately, sentiments within the political class and society at large are not cast in stone and could easily swing in the opposite direction, as happened after the first wave of NATO enlargement and the Kosovo crisis especially if Putin were to give the right signal.

Much more important is the fact that with the West absorbed in the war and its own internal squabbles it has ceased to be a factor that could push Russia toward more radical transformation. For the West, the major imperative now is a peaceful Russia, even if the cost is stagnation. Thus, the Iraq war would seem to be very unfortunate for democratic reforms in Russia. The question is, how long will the West be bogged down in the Iraqi crisis and its consequences?

There is a lot of speculation about what pushed Putin to become such an active member of the anti-Bush coalition: Was it nostalgia for lost superpower status, desire for "revenge" or an attempt to poke the United States in the eye, as many say?

I would argue that Putin's motives were more pragmatic: concern about possible destabilization in an area close to Russia's southern borders and the fear of the "preemptive war" being continued; unhappiness about lack of substance in U.S.-Russian relations; and finally, strong pressure on the president from Kremlin hawks. All these factors had an impact on Putin's behavior over the past two months.

But there are two more things that should be taken into account. By criticizing the United States, Putin wanted to force Bush to take Russia more seriously. If in the end Bush does, it would at least partially justify Moscow's "estrangement" tactics. My hunch, however, is that the president did not expect to go so far in opposing Washington, but was pushed or rather seduced by smart French diplomacy. But now that Western partners have started to find their way out of the debacle, he has to take steps to prevent Russia from being left behind, when the train with America and "old Europe" pulls out of the station.

Russia can't make a sharp U-turn and join the Anglo-Saxon partnership. This is hardly possible even for Russia's zig-zag style of diplomacy. But Russia can still play a constructive role by siding with Blair in persuading Bush to return to the U.N., after U.S. military objectives in Iraq are accomplished. This might even mean endorsing a U.S.-led government in Iraq. But Russia should go beyond this, offering its plan for restructuring the Security Council in order to prevent future international crises like the one we have just had.

If Putin fails to assist the West actively in repairing relations, the more modest goal of moving toward a position of equidistance in relations with all key international actors would not be the worst alternative. We already see that Putin understands he has let Russia slide too far in its opposition to the United States, and there are efforts on both sides of the ocean to initiate damage control.

The problem, however, is that in the absence of serious strategic engagement and relying only on the leaders' personal chemistry, new mutual frustrations are inevitable. The threat of a common enemy, i.e. international terrorism, as we have discovered is not sufficient to prevent new estrangement. Moreover, Iraq, North Korea and Iran continue to be a source of deep disagreements between Washington and Moscow. The goal is not only to restore trust but also to think about possible areas of convergence of U.S. and Russian interests.

What will the ongoing impact of the Iraqi war be on Russian domestic developments? Any narrowing of the rift between the Western allies will be positive for our transformation. For the first time in history Russia has an interest in the West being united. Only then can Russia become integrated into Western civilization.

It is worth noting that Putin has not tried to play the Western powers off against one another. He has made no attempt to forge an alliance with other states, such as China, against the West or to assist Hussein as Gorbachev tried to do during the first gulf war or as Yeltsin who tried to save Slobodan Milosevich during the Kosovo crisis. This demonstrates that Russia has undergone a serious evolution in a relatively short period of time, from grudges and desperate attempts to preserve its superpower status to understanding its geopolitical limitations and constraints.

Putin has definitely gone much further than Yeltsin in his pro-Western orientation and the past two years of junior partnership with America are proof of this. The problem is, however, that Putin still seems to believe Russia's integration with the West can be achieved while preserving a hybrid regime based on incompatible principles. The current Western policy of cajoling Putin apparently strengthens his conviction that the West will tolerate any domestic rules of the game. He may be in for some unpleasant surprises.

There are several conclusions or lessons that can be drawn in the context of the Iraqi crisis:

1. Don't take Russia for granted. Until society and the regime are consolidated on the basis of clear principles, vacillations in Russian foreign policy cannot be excluded.

2. Putin's pro-Western orientation contradicts his attempt to be all things to all people domestically. He cannot ski with his skis pointing in different directions for long. If he wants to be a Westerner, he has to form a new political base. However, this inevitably means destabilization something Putin can hardly countenance during an election season.

3. Russia's partnership with America gives the political class a feeling of importance, massages its superpower complex and preserves a definite type of mentality based on military might. But this cannot promote Russia's move toward "normality." Only going beyond the security agenda in U.S.-Russian relations can provide a constructive impulse for Russia's transformation. At the moment, cooperation with Europe creates more impetus for Moscow to implement liberal changes.

4. Differing assessments of international threats and the means of response among Western partners hinder Russia's move toward its new international role and integration with the Western community: Russia is at a loss as to which West to choose.

5. Iraq has demonstrated that not only Russia but also the West is unready to face the new challenges of the 21st century. A new world order demands the creation of new international mechanisms and this cannot be achieved without Russia.

Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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