WASHINGTON -- Most countries don't like to admit it when they act for economic reasons. But Russian officials are frank about why they so strongly opposed last week's American missile attacks against Iraq: There's a lot of money at stake.
Still struggling to develop capitalist trade relations after the death of communism, Russia openly hungers for a share of Iraq's potential oil wealth and can hardly wait for the day when United Nations economic sanctions are lifted and Baghdad can begin developing its economy again with oil exports. Last week offered the Kremlin perhaps its best chance yet to earn Iraq's gratitude.
"Sooner or later, sanctions against Iraq will be dropped," Russia's deputy foreign minister, Viktor Posuvalyuk, said in a broadcast aired last week on Russian public television. "This is a country in which we have some very serious plans, and we need to prepare now for the time when the race, the rivalry and the competition begin for Iraqi business."
Posuvalyuk was in Iraq on an economic mission in the days leading up to the U.S. missile strikes.
He actually served as one of the diplomatic channels to pass along Washington's warning to Iraq that it risked being attacked if Saddam Hussein's troops pushed into Kurdish areas in the north.
Saddam Hussein ignored the American warning, but Posuvalyuk nevertheless counted his mission a success, saying he had been assured that "all other conditions being equal, priority will be given to Russia and not to other major firms interested in economic links with Baghdad."
Russia was not alone in its criticism of the U.S. action. France, which has its own economic ambitions in Iraq, refused to join in patrols of the expanded no-fly zone in southern Iraq. Indeed, Washington's own behavior in the Persian Gulf is guided by the desire to protect oil supplies in the region.
But these economic objectives are not usually identified as the ,, main reasons for action.
The attacks against Iraq also appeared to consolidate Russian officials in a single mode.
No support for attacks
Politicians across the political spectrum -- from Anatoly Chubais, the pro-reform aide to President Boris N. Yeltsin, to extreme nationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky -- condemned the U.S. attacks, which were intended to punish Iraq for launching an armed assault against the Kurdish north. The strikes "produced a rare moment of unity in Moscow," Radio Free Europe analyst Paul Goble noted.
Few, however, were more outspoken than Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, who specialized in Middle East affairs as a journalist and academician during the Soviet days and served as a special envoy for Mikhail Gorbachev in trying to head off the 1991 Persian Gulf war. More recently, he headed Russia's foreign intelligence service.
Speaking Tuesday during a trip to Western Europe, Primakov delivered a particularly scathing criticism of U.S. motivations.
The U.S. attacks "cannot be supported by anyone at all, except those who put domestic politics, including pre-electoral questions, above all else."
Referring to the United States the next day, he said, "There are forces which are endeavoring to create a mono-polar world, are eager to have only one superpower in the world that could dictate its terms to others."
Moscow's representatives at the United Nations followed up by blocking a British-sponsored Security Council resolution criticizing Iraq's oppression of its own people, even after Britain had softened some provisions.
Prestige is at stake
Primakov's resentful tone showed that more than just economics was at work -- that Russia is also trying to rebuild its prestige in world affairs, especially among former Soviet client states such as Iraq.
"It's part of establishing that they are not in America's pocket, that they have their own foreign policy and are the honorable, righteous people of the Earth and the Americans are a bunch of hooligans that go around bashing people," said Ted Friedgut, a Russian specialist at Hebrew University in Israel.
Given Russia's past ties to Arab countries at odds with the United States, Primakov's comments gave rise to speculation that he hopes to rebuild Moscow's military and political hegemony over part of the Arab world.
But most analysts believe Russia hardly has the resources to fulfill such ambitions, given Russia's serious economic problems and the disastrous condition of its military as evidenced by its failure in Chechnya.
"The army is in disorder," Friedgut said. "They don't have the budgets to operate outside their own borders."
A State Department official, who declined to be identified, said Russia's reaction to the missile attack came as no surprise.
"It was a little bit of grandstanding on their part," the official said. "They would like to show Iraqis and others that they 'stand up for the Arabs.' "
Sherman Garnett, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, said Russia's strategic ambitions for the Middle East are still unclear.
While hoping to recoup the estimated $7 billion debt owed by Iraq, he said, Russia also cooperates with Iran, Baghdad's enemy and rival for dominance in the Persian Gulf.
"They have a dual embrace; we have dual containment," he said, comparing Moscow's and Washington's policies toward Iran and Iraq.
Russia has sold submarines to Iran, but probably would welcome the chance to sell weapons to Iraq again once U.N.-imposed restrictions are lifted, Garnett said.
Russia's actions would likely be constrained by its need for international respectability. Its officials enjoy the prestige that comes with being a co-sponsor with the United States of the Middle East peace process, although Russia's role has mostly been symbolic.
Although Moscow hasn't caused serious damage in the region yet, "Russia's reaction is not only unhelpful but worrisome," said Arnold Kanter, a senior State Department and White House official during the Bush administration.
He said it suggests that either Primakov is "free-lancing," meaning that Yeltsin is not in charge of Russian foreign policy, "or Boris Yeltsin forgets that Clinton gave him a green light on Chechnya," where Russia's killing of civilians drew international outrage. Either way, he said, it could spell trouble for U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Pub Date: 9/08/96