MOSCOW — To strike or not to strike seems to be the question in Washington these days. A part of the “axis of evil,” terrorist-lair Iraq, an old foe, is currently under the scrutiny of U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration. While military planners weigh various strategic options for crushing Saddam Hussein’s regime, diplomats are busy talking to other capitals — and one must admit without much success.
The American campaign in Afghanistan was supported, or at least given silent consent, by all major powers. The planned campaign in Iraq, however, causes much controversy. One country that the Bush administration must take into account now is Russia.
Eleven years ago, Moscow wasn’t wild about operation Desert Storm. In 1991, the Communist Party still led the country, and the American strike against Iraq after the latter occupied Kuwait was received with much displeasure. Iraq had been Moscow’s client state for years, and the Kremlin perceived it as continuing within Moscow’s sphere of influence. President Mikhail Gorbachev tried to mediate the conflict by diplomatic means, but that of course did not prevent the Persian Gulf War.
By that time, the Soviet empire had become toothless and worn, and neither Hussein nor the West took it seriously. In 2002, the situation looks very different: The Kremlin has become stronger, the West more diffuse, the Muslim world more assertive and influential.
Although Russia is still struggling with the consequences of the collapse of its overseas empire, under President Vladimir Putin it has restored at least some of its stature in world affairs. Still no match for the United States or, for that matter, the European Union, Russia is nevertheless back at the negotiating table with the great powers. It is not going to rubber-stamp any U.S. initiative, particularly in the Middle East. Its network of allies in the area may be lost for good; its presence there is not.
Russian oil companies, which provide the bulk of the revenues for the national budget, have vested interests in the Middle Eastern oil bonanza. Russian oil business has found itself in an enviable position similar to that of a sought-after bride, simultaneously courted by the Russian government, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Western energy consumers.
It, too, has a number of strategic options, including becoming an alternative oil-and-gas supplier to Western markets, thus bypassing traditional Middle Eastern competitors like Saudi Arabia. Quite a few policy planners in Europe and North America would like to see this happen, as energy dependency on the Muslim world has been charged with serious complications since Sept. 11.
The allegiances of nations like Saudi Arabia are split between economic pragmatism (oil trade with the West) and religious zeal (support of fundamentalist Islamic groups and their goals). In this situation, understandably, Russia’s oil tap looks more reliable. But does this make the Russian oil business necessarily supportive of a strike against Iraq?
On one hand, Russian oil tycoons would be happy to increase tensions between America and oil-producing Muslim nations by siding with Bush in his anti-Hussein crusade. However, if the forthcoming “Gulf War II” were a smashing success, American oil companies would probably get direct access to Mideast oil, making the Russian supply redundant.
Then there is the issue of oil and gas from the Caspian basin. Landlocked nations like Azerbaijan, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan must rely on gargantuan pipelines to deliver their energy resources to customers in the West. Right now, Russia is instrumental in this respect, providing its territory as an (expensive) avenue for oil and gas export.
If the U.S. successfully toppled Hussein, the situation in the Middle East might change drastically, creating new options for the export of oil and depriving Russia of its precious transit privileges. The Kremlin cares about the oil industry — the Russian economy’s blood — more than it does anything else.
Kurdistan is another problem. Nobody knows what war will do for or to the Kurds, but one possible scenario is an independent Kurdistan that claims not only parts of Iraq but also part of NATO member and Russian neighbor Turkey. Moscow does not need another flaring conflict on its borders. At the same time, Turkey has become so popular with Muslim nations of the former Soviet Union that the Kremlin might want to see it weakened significantly.
What about the post-Soviet Muslim countries in the potential war against Iraq? Corrupt authoritarian states like Uzbekistan were only too glad to side with America in its campaign against the Taliban. Despite horrific human rights abuses that proceed virtually unnoticed, these despotic regimes have acquired recognition in the West. Would they use the chance to demonstrate their loyalty to the American cause once again, or would they yield to the necessity to appease to domestic Islamic fundamentalism? What is better for Moscow, to let these regimes develop a taste for pro-Americanism, or let the local militant Islamic groups grow?
Iraq has become a domestic issue in Russia proper. Stark nationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky have long made it a symbol of resistance against U.S. dominance in world affairs. Few Russians would be able to locate Iraq on a map, but many agree that any attack on it would be an act of unprovoked aggression. Putin, elected on a nationalist ticket, cannot ignore this trend.
If Bush seems preoccupied with the question of whether to strike, his Russian counterpart has another headache: to support or not to support. For the Russian president, the pros practically counterbalance the cons. His final decision may be influenced by some minuscule occurrence either in the volatile Middle East or on the equally unpredictable world oil markets.
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