Russian Reaction: What’s Behind the Opposition?

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Nikolai Sokov
December 17, 1998

There is nothing particularly surprising about Russia’s strong condemnation of the air strikes against Iraq: opposition to the use of force by the United States has become a permanent fixture of Russian foreign policy, and it was easy to predict the statements made in Moscow and by Russian representatives in New York.

Boris Yeltsin immediately went on record with a statement that the United States and Great Britain “crudely violated the UN Charter and the generally accepted principles of international law.” He also immediately placed a call to French and Chinese leaders, which is also hardly surprising given their predictable opposition to the air strikes.

More specific criticisms targeted Richard Butler, the chairman of UNSCOM, but, again, there is no love lost between Russia and Butler, and one can predict pressure to remove him from the chairmanship.

Also predictably, the leader of the Communist party Gennadiy Zyuganov declared that it was now “senseless” to ratify START II, which is supposed to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia to 3,500 warheads, in the face of “what in fact will be World War III.”

A more tantalizing question is whether Russia is returning to the Cold War period, when Soviet foreign policy was informed by automatic anti-Americanism, or whether the reasons for opposition are different. Apparently, the opposition to the use of force against Iraq, as well as in other cases, is driven mostly by concerns about the rules of behavior in the post-Cold War international system. The greatest concern is about the role of the U.N., and references to it should be taken literally rather than as a ritual.

The Russian position on the air strikes against Iraq is determined by three considerations: 1) the rules governing the use of force; 2) the future of Iraq in Russia’s security environment; and 3) concern about the possibility of the use of force against Russia.

1) In a nutshell, the Russian position is that, except for cases of self-defense, the use of force in international relations requires the explicit endorsement of the Security Council. Without it, this becomes the rule of force rather than the rule of law; the principle is similar to that espoused by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s (and welcomed at that time by almost everyone), but with a new twist caused by the realities of today.

The Russian concern is that decisions on the use of force are increasingly slipping into the hands of the United States and NATO, which, because their military power is clearly superior to anyone else’s, are turning into a sort of “global policeman,” that both establishes the rules and enforces them. There is nothing new in this concern: it was evident in connection with Bosnia, Kosovo, earlier uses of force or threats of force against Iraq, and the Sudan/Afghanistan air strikes.

This is the reason why Russia adamantly demanded that in the Balkans, NATO must not operate under a UN mandate instead of independently. The key criticism today is that the air strikes were undertaken before the UN Security Council could formally review the report by Richard Butler, meaning that there was no formal endorsement of his findings and thus no automatic right to use force.

2) It would be a mistake to say that the Russian government supports Saddam Hussein (the situation is, of course, different with the opposition parties in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament). Available evidence suggests that the government is actually unhappy with Saddam, who consistently creates crises in relations with UNSCOM and puts Russia in a highly awkward position of automatic conflict with the United States. Clearly, a more restrained policy by Iraq would have made Russia’s life much easier.

But there is also a serious concern about what might happen to Iraq once Saddam Hussein is out. There are expectations that the next Iraqi government will be strongly pro-American and that developments would parallel the ongoing enlargement of NATO, this time from the South. Within this framework, continuing uncertainty is better than certain American military presence (direct or indirect) in Iraq. Agreeing with US domination in that country would require a conviction that everything the United States does is for the good of the international community: a conviction that is definitely lacking in Moscow.

3) There is concern that the trends in the use of force in the international system during the last few years are ultimately leading to a situation when force could be used against Russia itself. No matter how far-fetched this fear is, it is quite real. Even if this does not happen today or tomorrow, it might happen under another U.S. president, and the Russian elite, especially the military, are seriously contemplating aircraft carriers in the Baltic Sea doing the same things to Moscow as they are now doing to Baghdad. Suffice it to say that last summer the official newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense published an article under the headline: “The ‘Kosovo Scenario’ Could Play Out in the Territory of Any Country, Including Russia.” The sentiment has not changed since then.

If the decisions on the use of force slip out of the hands of the Security Council, then the use or the threat of force against Russia becomes feasible. There are plenty of reasons: cooperation with Iran, economic sanctions against the Baltic states, support for Serbia…. This is a frightening scenario, and its probability has apparently increased in the minds of Russian policymakers since December 16.

Surprisingly, economic considerations, which seemed to strongly influence the Russian position on Iraq just a year ago (particularly the hope to recoup the estimated seven billion dollar Iraqi debt to the Soviet Union) are no longer mentioned these days. In fact, the removal of sanctions from Iraq would probably hurt Russia because it would cause oil prices to fall further. Given the Russian economy’s dependence on oil export revenues, the short-term impact of declining oil prices would clearly outweigh the long-term benefits of Iraqi repayment of its debt.

To summarize, Russian opposition to the US and British air strikes is not necessarily about Iraq itself and certainly not about the nonproliferation regime. Rather, this is a fundamental concern about the rules of game in the emerging international system and Russia’s place in it, as well as about potential implications for the security of its own territory.

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