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Putin's choice

About the author
Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.

Will the United States and Britain succeed in gaining approval for a second resolution on Iraq at the United Nations (UN) Security Council? Much depends on whether any of the five veto-carrying members are prepared to wield that weapon.

On 24 February, the UK and the US tabled a second resolution, stating that Iraq had not complied with the earlier resolution 1441. But Russia immediately backed an alternative French initiative for reinforced inspections (as did Germany, currently chair of the Council but without a veto).

France’s Jacques Chirac appears willing to veto the second resolution. Tony Blair has made it clear that if one country uses its veto against the resolution for specious reasons, he would still assume that the UN had provided political – if not judicial – cover for military action.

But what would Blair do if Russia, as well as, France, vetoes the resolution? After all, when Putin flew to Paris earlier this month, to sign a joint declaration on Iraq with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, he spoke explicitly of the possibility of using his veto at the UN.

In London and Washington, the general assumption among commentators and officials is that, at the last minute, Putin will not want to annoy Bush; he will either vote in favour of the resolution or abstain. Indeed, a senior figure in the British Ministry of Defence recently told me that he had no doubt that Russia would back the US: “Putin agrees with the last person who speaks to him. The last person he speaks to will be George Bush.”

This point of view is based in part on an analysis of Russia’s economic self-interest. Iraq owes Russia at least $8 billion. Russian oil companies have won important concessions in Iraqi oil fields. Russia is Iraq’s largest commercial partner.

If Russia annoys the Americans by directly opposing war in Iraq, a US-sponsored successor regime in Baghdad is unlikely to go out of its way to honour debts or contracts incurred by the previous regime. Conversely, the US has promised to use its best endeavours with the new Iraqi government to ensure that Russian interests are respected – so long as Russia behaves the right way.

The word in Moscow

On a recent visit to Moscow, however, I discovered that many well-informed commentators take a different view. They believe that Putin will use his veto against the new resolution.

Those who are in touch with Putin’s immediate circle acknowledge that his entourage is confused about what to do on Iraq. “It would be better for us if the US just attacks Iraq, then we won’t have to decide how to vote,” says Yury Kobaladze, a former intelligence officer who is now a well-connected investment banker. He thinks Putin will use his veto, “because it is easier for us – partly because of our relations in the Arab world – to thwart the US than France and Germany.”

Some think that Putin’s recent lining up behind Chirac and Schröder indicates that he is not his own man. According to this view, Putin’s chosen foreign policy is to be pro-west and in particular pro-US. His recent behaviour in Paris was incompatible with that policy. Therefore, the security establishment – in the foreign and defence ministries, the intelligence services and the armed forces – must be pushing him around.

But a second, widely-held view is that Putin is strong enough to ignore his critics. According to this argument, Putin’s commitment to friendship with the US was profound but it has been rebuffed. On this logic he has received virtually nothing in return for the support he has given Bush.

Instead the US has pursued a number of initiatives that are hostile to Russian interests: enlarging Nato, even into the Baltic; stationing troops in the Central Asian republics; and tearing up the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty so that it can proceed with plans for missile defence. Putin has therefore decided that on some big issues he will oppose the US.

The view of the Russian political elite is that Putin has benefited little from siding with Bush. For example, they regard the new Nato–Russia council as worthless, because the Nato countries – they allege – refuse to discuss matters of importance within it.

Nor do they think that US promises of help over Iraqi debts to Russia are worth more than a pinch of salt. Many Russians believe that a war would damage Russia’s economic interests: a democratic, pro-American Iraq would probably step up oil production, and could even leave OPEC, leading to a serious drop in the oil price (any price below $18 a barrel could become painful for Russia).

Many members of Russia’s political elite are as horrified by the US administration’s unilateral tendencies as their counterparts in European Union (EU) countries. They know that Russia’s international influence rests primarily on two pillars: its thousands of nuclear warheads, and its veto at the UN.

Like many other Europeans, Russians see the UN and other international organisations as mechanisms for constraining American power. Many Russians therefore argue that it is natural for Putin to back Chirac in the current crisis.

They also point out that Putin knows the EU is more important than the US as an economic partner. After the Union’s 2004 enlargement it will take more than half of Russia’s exports. Russia already supplies around 20% of the EU’s gas and oil, and that proportion is set to grow.

While explanations of Putin’s recent behaviour differ, there is near-unanimity among members of the Russian establishment to whom I talked that Putin would be prepared to wield a veto alongside France. They think that only if France caved in to American pressure, thereby leaving Russia isolated, would Putin think again. They say that he is concerned about public opinion; parliamentary elections are due in December 2003 and the Communists – who are strongly anti-war – may present a serious challenge.

I am not sure that this analysis is correct. Putin may well calculate he would be better off keeping Bush happy, and annoying the French and the Germans – together with many of his diplomats, generals and intelligence chiefs. The strong anti-American prejudice of the Russian political elite may colour its judgement on what Putin will do at the UN. Because the elite cares about foreign policy, it assumes the public does.

But several studies of public opinion suggest that ordinary Russians care much more about domestic issues than foreign policy. Nato’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 was different; Russians feel that the Serbs are kith and kin, and there was strong public antipathy to that US-led war. By contrast, many Russians tend to be hostile to Arabs, and none of them feel much sympathy for Saddam.

In any case, Putin has received some payback for his friendship to the US and Britain. Specifically, there is the new Nato–Russia council (Tony Blair’s idea), in which the Russians and the Nato countries can discuss matters of common concern. There is a new treaty with the US that will reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

And, more generally, Putin has won the friendship of Bush, which is useful in the fight against terrorism. That friendship could lead to economic dividends, such as future investment in the Russian oil industry or help with Russian entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The balancing act

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, deputy foreign minister Sergei Razov explained Russian opposition to an attack on Iraq: “What comes after Iraq? The US could then attack North Korea or Iran. And China might take the opportunity to act against Taiwan.” Razov predicts that a war would lead to a split in the anti-terror coalition, a radicalisation of the Islamic world and a weakened UN.

During the past two years, as Putin has pursued generally pro-western policies, he has sometimes veered towards the EU, sometimes to the US. For most of 2001 he appeared to privilege the EU.

He told the Bundestag in September 2001: “Nobody doubts the great value of Europe’s relations with the US. However, in the long term, Europe will better consolidate its reputation as a powerful and really independent centre of international politics, if it combines its own possibilities with Russia’s human, territorial and natural resources, and with Russia’s economic, cultural and defence potential.”

Soon afterwards Putin and EU leaders agreed to a new and closer set of institutional links, including close cooperation on matters such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Since 11 September 2001 Putin has moved closer to the US. He found the Americans more ‘understanding’ over Chechnya than the Europeans. Given Bush’s insistence that the problems of al-Qaida and Iraq are linked, he can hardly dispute Putin’s claim that the fighting in Chechnya is part of a global war against terrorism.

Bush’s new doctrine of pre-emption appealed to conservatives in the Russian establishment; if the doctrine allowed the US to invade Iraq, to prevent Iraq attacking first, it could also allow Russia to bomb Georgia – to prevent terrorists based there from mounting strikes on Russia.

Russia’s growing impatience with the EU became evident during 2002. The six-monthly Russia–EU summits clearly bored Putin, and seemed to be more about process than substance. There have been plenty of irritants in Russia–EU relations, including arguments over visas for the inhabitants of Kaliningrad; gas exports that breach EU rules on competition policy; the EU’s tough line with Russia in its negotiations to join the WTO; and, above all, the Europeans’ ‘annoying’ habit of saying that Russia should negotiate with the Chechens.

Russia’s leaders noticed that the US’s support during the Nord-Ost theatre siege in October was more wholehearted than that of the Europeans. And the refusal in December of first Denmark and then Britain to extradite Akhmed Zakaev, a moderate Chechen leader, only confirmed the view of some Russian leaders that the EU countries are soft on terrorism.

“We don’t like the EU’s insistence that our joint declarations refer to the situation in Chechnya,” said deputy foreign minister Razov. “We disagree with the EU when they say we should negotiate with a blood-stained figure like Maskhadov, who was behind the Nord-Ost siege.”

By last autumn, senior figures in the Russian defence establishment, such as Sergei Karaganov and Alexei Arbatov, were deriding the EU’s military capabilities, while arguing that the US was Russia’s only serious potential military partner.

This hostility to the EU spread to the economic dimension. In October 2002 Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s economic adviser, told me that the EU economy was “over-regulated and under-performing”. He said that the US was the natural model for Russia to follow, since both of them had dynamic and fast-growing economies.

Hedging bets

This year, the splits among the Europeans have made it harder for Putin to manage his game of switching favours between the Europeans and the US. However Putin casts his vote, a war in Iraq will leave its mark on Russia’s politics and foreign policy.

A friend of mine recently spoke to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the youthful boss of Yukos, Russia’s leading oil company. Khodorkovsky said that he thought war in Iraq would damage democracy in Russia. There would be more anti-western sentiment, which is always bad news for Russia’s liberals. The US would have less leverage over the human rights situation in Russia. And the KGB faction in the government, which is already a growing force, would feel more emboldened to do what it wanted.

A war could also shift Russia away from its more-or-less multilateralist view of global governance. If the current crisis weakens institutions such as the UN, Nato, the EU and the WTO, Russia has less interest in working in or with them.

A joke told recently by Vladimir Baranovsky, deputy director of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think-tank, makes a serious point: “The west is cheating us yet again. Just when they are offering us the chance for a partnership with Nato, it is becoming irrelevant.”

One faction in Moscow – associated with former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov – has always stressed a balance-of-power view of international relations, rather than the multilateral view that is favoured by many Europeans. A war would strengthen this faction, which likes to pursue big-power politics. Russia might once again think of ganging up with China, India, some Arab countries – and perhaps the ‘old Europe’ bloc – to confront and constrain the US.

Against all that, I believe that Putin’s top priority is to boost the strength of the Russian economy. He cannot do that without economic liberalisation, which he is pursuing, and foreign investment, which remains scarce. He needs good relations with the US and the EU to achieve his objectives.

He will try to avoid upsetting the countries whose good will he needs. But if he has to choose between annoying the US and ‘new Europe’, on the one hand, or ‘old Europe’ on the other, he may well prefer to annoy ‘old Europe’. But that is not what they are saying in Moscow.

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