During the first Gulf War, Mikhail Gorbachev was too busy trying to hold together a disintegrating Soviet Union to focus on events in the Middle East. Ritual protests were voiced about America’s undue haste, but no serious attempt was made to change the course of events.
Tensions were higher in 1998 when Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament loudly denounced U.S. and British air strikes against Iraq. What can we expect from the Russians this time around?
If a resolution to authorize force comes before the U.N. Security Council, will Moscow vote it down, up or simply abstain? For a motion to pass, nine of 15 Council members must agree, and there can be no vetoes from the five permanent members — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia.
If Russia votes no, they would be thinking in economic more than political terms. Iraq owes Moscow billions of dollars which it cannot pay back under current U.N. restrictions, and lucrative contracts for further business are on hold. Despite U.S. assurances that under a new regime Russian contracts would be honored, Moscow is concerned that U.S. control of Iraqi oil could depress world prices and wreak havoc on the Russian economy.
Regardless of the economic risks, when the first U.N. resolution was under consideration last fall, a senior Russian official explained that Iraq was a trading partner, not an ally. Moscow has not gone the route of Ukraine, which apparently furnished Iraq with advanced radar systems. Russia is not alone in objecting to Washington’s unilateral approach, but good relations with the U.S. and Britain are far more important to Russia’s future than maintaining Saddam Hussein in office.
President Vladimir Putin has forged strategic alliances with many nations, but has concentrated his efforts on Europe and the U.S. He was the first world leader to contact the White House on September 11, offering Russia’s sympathy and help in the war on terrorism.
Moscow’s still impressive intelligence services and deep area knowledge about many regions of the world has made this a non-trivial offer. Being visibly and vocally part of the anti-terrorist effort has brought Russia renewed esteem as a player in international affairs and has led Washington to ease up on its criticism of Moscow’s conduct in Chechnya. Whatever the facts of the case turn out to be, as long as the U.S. needs Russian support, we will accept the argument that Chechen rebels are getting help from international terrorist groups.
So there are reasons for Russia to vote against a show of force and reasons to support the resolution, but Putin may simply abstain, especially if other nations also assume a neutral stance.
In doing this, Russia would be acting neither as the “Old” or “New” Europe, but as “another Europe,” one which is more confident and less ideological than in the recent past.
Having just marked the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, in which 1 million Soviet citizens perished, no one needs to tell Russians about the price of war, or about the wisdom of choosing one’s fights carefully.
Parthe is a professor of Russian in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures and the Director of Russian Studies. She can be reached at email@example.com