THE UNITED STATES VERSUS IRAQ, AND RUSSIA VERSUS GEORGIA: THE PROSPECTS OF CONFRONTATION

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On the anniversary of September 11, Kommersant-Vlast magazine calculated that over the past twelve months President Putin had expressed support for his US counterpart 48 times in statements about the need for a war on terrorism. President Bush himself had only made 39 such statements, 18.7% fewer than Putin.

On the other hand, the United States spent $343 billion on defense and improved security over that period – or 12.9 times more than Russia did (using the exchange rate of 18.50 rubles to the dollar, as in the budget for 2002). Thus, according to Kommersant-Vlast, each of Putin’s warlike statements may be valued at $554 million, while each statement from President Bush was worth $8.79 billion, or 15.9 times more.

For some time now, the media has been absorbed in debating what Russia stands to gain from the pro-Western policy adopted by Putin a year ago. Majority opinion has it that the results are not in Russia’s favor.

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, over the past year “plenty of good things have been said about Russia, as well as many bad things; and meanwhile our country has lost far more than it has gained.”

The major loss, in the view of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, is that Russia has essentially surrendered its geopolitical positions in Central Asia. When President Putin called on the leaders of post-Soviet republics to support the anti-terrorism coalition, “he perhaps didn’t suspect at the time that once NATO troops had settled into former Soviet bases and airfields, they would be there to stay.” This shade of doubt about the president’s actions is characteristic of media commentary on this topic: Nezavisimaya Gazeta doesn’t entirely rule out that Putin might have (should have!) foreseen NATO’s entrenchment in Central Asia (and now in Georgia) – but that didn’t stop him.

NATO expansion into Eastern Europe looks even worse: Nezavisimaya Gazeta says Russia had been hoping that NATO membership for the Baltic states would be postponed for a while, that it wouldn’t happen until NATO itself changed substantially in terms of its cooperation with Russia. In reality, NATO “was generous enough”, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta puts it, to invite Russia to attend its meetings as “a kind of observer-partner with no serious influence on anything at all”. And Russia “proudly announced that NATO was now a real group of Twenty” – which isn’t the case, of course.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, if Russia really was counting on anything when it declared its support for US plans, it counted on having at least some of its Soviet-era debts written off, and that the Americans would require Russia’s help in Afghanistan. But we miscalculated even here: “our unexpected partners and allies”, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta calls the Americans, decided that the defeat of the Taliban in itself was good for Russia, so there would be no talk of writing off debts.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta goes on to recall the confusion over World Trade Organization membership for Russia, and Russia’s market economy status, and even the Jackson-Vanik amendment – now recognized to be absurd even by the Russian Jewish organizations in whose interests it was originally passed. This sad list could be continued, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “but is it worth indulging in such self-humiliation?”

Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal magazine has presented its own balance sheet of Russia’s gains and losses over the past year. It describes Putin’s foreign policy as “rational”.

“So Moscow’s debts haven’t been written off, unlike those of Pakistan. So US troops aren’t defending Russia from Islamic militants, as they’re defending Uzbekistan. But the Kremlin has very adroitly latched on to the US approach of using force, arguing that the war in Chechnya is being waged against the same enemy.” Thus, it managed to dampen down Western criticism of its policy in Chechnya “for practically an entire year”. Among the indisputable gains, Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal counts the $20 billion promised to Russia for dismantling obsolete submarines and destroying chemical weapons. True enough, the full sum will only be forthcoming if Russia ceases cooperation with the “axis of evil” nations, and so far there has been no talk of that. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that “Putin has apparently gained less than he had expected, and certainly nowhere near enough to satisfy all the lobby groups.”

Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal observer Alexander Goltz uses these circumstances to explain all the peculiarities in Russia’s foreign policy: “Despite Russia’s clear determination to develop relations with the US, it suddenly starts taunting Washington by its special links with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.” Goltz notes that it’s hard to say what might be the Russian government’s motivation here. It might be the hope of some kind of economic benefits; but the extent and probability of getting these “are always exaggerated by supporters of an anti-American turn in Russian foreign policy”. It might be an intention to be recognized as a mediator between these nations and the civilized world. Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal warns: “But Washington, intent on cutting through any knot it encounters, doesn’t seem to be expecting anything from Russia’s civilizing efforts.”

In any case, Russia now has a more realistic view of its own capacities than it did a year ago: there is no more talk of creating a Primakov-style anti-American coalition, while US global hegemony – the main result of the anti-terrorism operation – now clearly presents “a problem for the whole world, not only a problem for Russia.”

Kommersant-Vlast magazine offers its own account of the “unexpected signs of attention” which Russia is demonstratively paying to the leading opponents of the US. Practically all the nations which joined the anti-terrorism coalition unanimously a year ago “are now no less unanimously calling on Washington to stop holding the match so close to the powder-keg”. Meanwhile, US diplomacy seems to be prepared to do a great deal to persuade its allies to support its operation against Baghdad.

Kommersant-Vlast says: “This means that international politics – which a year ago became simple as a game of give-away – will once again resemble chess.” In short, some major political bargaining is starting, and this is the light in which all Russia’s international “dangerous liaisons” should be viewed. Kommersant-Vlast says: “Washington may be outraged at Moscow’s actions, but it understands the point of Moscow’s political game-play very well: by signing contracts with rogue states, Russia is gathering assets in the lead-up to its bargaining with the US over Iraq, to be followed by bargaining over Iran and North Korea.”

Kommersant-Vlast notes that in late July Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov signed a long-term cooperation agreement with Iran: as well as the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, another ten new reactors will be built in Iran by 2012. In mid-August an ambitious cooperation program with Iraq was reported (its estimated value is $40-60 billion). Then President Putin met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Vladivostok, and promised to aid North Korea’s emergence from international isolation.

Kommersant-Vlast considers these “geopolitical assets” could well become weighty arguments for the US in the political bargaining over Iraq, when (if) the talk turns to compensating Moscow for lost opportunities. The demands on Russia will not be all that heavy: “it should only refrain from protesting too much when American missiles rain down on Baghdad”. The article by Kommersant-Vlast observer Leonid Galkin is headlined: “Friends For Sale”.

One indication that bargaining is indeed underway – and getting results – is a recent Kommersant article headlined “American Nuclear Waste Instead of an Iranian Reactor”. It discusses an IAEA meeting in Vienna, at which US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev exchanged compliments on Russian-US nuclear cooperation.

As Kommersant reports, Abraham and Rumyantsev held a bilateral meeting before the IAEA meeting, and there were renewed hints about the possibility of exchanging Russia’s contracts with Iran for contracts with the US – for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Abraham reminded Rumyantsev yet again how concerned the US administration is about nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran.

In all likelihood, Iran found out about these talks: in any case, Iranian Vice-President Reza Aga-Zade, speaking in Vienna, announced Iran’s ambitious plan to build several new nuclear power plants over the next few years, with a total capacity of 6,000 megawatts (the essential point of the long-term bilateral cooperation program approved by the Russian government). Aga-Zade then suddenly invited all IAEA member nations possessing advanced technology to participate in the project – without mentioning Russia.

Ekspert magazine reminds its readers that the first anniversary of September 11 has coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of eleven Israeli athletes being killed by Palestinian militants from the Black September group at the Munich Olympics. As in New York, the Munich terrorists were Arabs, and the cause in both cases was the Mideast situation. The main difference has been the reaction of the victim nations.

Israel used a team of assassins to get its revenge: they killed everyone who had been involved in the terrorist attack, gradually, one by one. Ekspert says the United States chose “the method of draining the swamps of terrorism”, undeterred by the fact that its own calculations indicate these swamps “take up almost a quarter of the planet”.

As a result, Ekspert notes ironically, Kabul now has “a democratic government which is under fire from all kinds of weapons”. Chaos in Afghanistan is getting worse, while the main enemies – Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Al-Qaeda – are still active.

Now it is the turn of Iraq. Ekspert notes: “The American people are a politician’s dream. Sincere, guileless, and trusting, they never ask the question which cynical Europeans would be asking constantly: If neither Osama bin Laden nor the Saudi terrorists are there, why are we going into Iraq?”

According to this article, the year since September 11 has clearly shown that a substantial part of the American political elite “has been wanting to expand its ability to control the world’s resources for some time” – especially since the US economy has been in a deep structural crisis. Ekspert says: “Another war in the oil zone, involving the United States, had been predicted before September 11; the planes that hit the World Trade Center only hastened that war.” It is probably impossible to stop these developments: “The United States is unfazed by Europe’s arguments or Russia’s objections, and it completely ignores reactions from the East.”

Ekspert considers that Russia’s expectations of gaining anything from the situation are unfounded: Russia will lose out, either way. If the US military operation in Iraq is successful, oil prices will drop immediately after it, and Russia’s budget will lose a lot of revenue. If there are any complications in the war, Ekspert predicts grave consequences for the economies of the West, “which would also lead to market collapse and many other bad consequences for Russia’s fragile economy”.

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, leading US political analyst Dmitry Simes, president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, categorically denies the idea that the “oil factor” is the chief motive for military action against Iraq. However, Simes admits that when there is talk of a full-scale war against “the state with the world’s second-largest oil reserves”, it’s impossible to ignore oil interests.

As for Russia’s position on the issue of Iraq, Simes says: “Russia will probably not want to find itself in harness with Saddam Hussein, nor to find itself on the sidelines – demonstrating its displeasure and impotence – as it did during the war in Yugoslavia.” Especially since the US administration is prepared to help Russia make “a rational choice” by “taking all Russia’s legitimate economic interests into account”.

Nevertheless, Simes’ reply to the question of what Russia has really gained from its year of cooperation with the US (unfulfilled hopes of favored trade partner status and “concessions on the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty” were mentioned) was sobering. Simes said: “To President Putin’s credit, he did not speak of such conditions to President Bush after September 11.” According to Simes, this was one of the reasons why “Bush insisted with such delight that he had looked into President Putin’s soul and liked what he had seen.”

The Vremya MN newspaper quotes the words of former CIA director James Wolf, published in the International Herald Tribune, to the effect that it ought to be explained to Russia and France that in return for their help in establishing “a more respectable government in Iraq” Washington will help them establish relations with the new regime in Baghdad. According to the New York Times, Russia may even count on faster repayment of Iraq’s debts and a good relationship with Iraq if “it once again becomes a member of the international community”.

But Russia cannot count on very much. The International Herald Tribune notes: “The overthrow of Saddam Hussein through the efforts of the United States will open a goldmine for American oil companies, which have long been banished from Iraq; it will disrupt Baghdad’s oil deals with Russia and France, and reshuffle the cards on global oil markets.” Clearly, a strike against Iraq is a settled matter.

The US presents a compelling example; it suddenly became clear that Russia was also prepared to try solving its problems by using similar methods. That was the conclusion drawn by the media when – on September 11, the anniversary of the start of the US crusade against terrorism – President Putin accused Georgia of abetting terrorists.

All the papers quoted Putin’s words: “It is now undeniable that some of those involved in preparing the terrorist attacks in the US a year ago, and some of those directly responsible for the apartment block explosions in Russia, have entrenched themselves in Georgia.” Putin not only demanded that President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia should extradite the guerrillas, but instructed the General Staff “to present proposals relating to the feasibility of carrying out strikes at reliably identified terrorist bases”. The Defense Ministry and “other enforcement agencies” should develop “plans for special operations to eliminate the militant gangs”.

Putin took care to provide a legal foundation for his plans: “If the Georgian government is incapable of creating a secure zone in the region of the Georgian-Russian border – if it continues to ignore UN Security Council resolution No. 1373, dated September 28, 2001 – if it does not put an end to bandit incursions and attacks on adjacent regions of Russia – then we reserve the right to take action in accordance with Item 51 of the UN Charter, which confirms the inalienable right of every UN member nation to individual or collective self-defense.” This is quoted in the Kommersant newspaper.

The papers immediately drew this conclusion: “Russia is offering the US a deal – Iraq in exchange for Georgia.” Kommersant said the Kremlin would not interfere with the US administration’s handling of Iraq, while the US would shut its eyes to the Kremlin’s plans for Georgia. According to Kommersant, it’s hard to argue with that line of reasoning: “President Bush has repeatedly said that terrorists should be hunted down wherever they may be.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper notes that Putin’s speech can hardly be considered spontaneous: “The Russian president must have carefully considered the likely reaction around the world to his harsh statement, made a day after he had a lengthy telephone conversation with President Bush.”

Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says that in delivering his ultimatumn, Putin “looked no less – perhaps even more – convincing than the US president”. However, the difference here lies in the fact that no one doubts the ability of the United States to defeat Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. As for Russia’s declared intentions – the matter is not nearly as straightforward.

Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal even questions whether the location of the guerrillas has actually been identified: after all, even in Chechnya, part of Russian territory, the exact locations of separatist camps remain a mystery.

Moreover, neither the first nor the second war in Chechnya have provided any proof that the Russian Armed Forces are capable of effective action. “So if Putin really wants to destroy the guerrillas in Georgia, a military operation is no way to go about doing that.”

Is Moscow really planning to carry out clean-up operations and check ID papers in the Pankisi Gorge as well? Everyone knows these methods have had no results apart from ruining morale among Russian troops.

But Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says the real purpose of Putin’s ultimatum may lie elsewhere. Putin, the supreme commander-in-chief, doesn’t know how to explain the fact that the “counter-terrorism operation” is continuing indefinitely (not only to Russia, but to the West, which has been as lenient as possible on the issue of Chechnya over the past year). “Apparently, Putin has now seen fit to agree with the theory presented by his generals: we would have won by now if the guerrillas weren’t able to hide in Georgia.”

Novoe Vremya magazine, analyzing changes in the West’s stance on the issue of Chechnya over the past year, doesn’t deny that the primary reason for less pressure on Russia has been “the change in political fashions after September 11, when the entire West dressed up in anti-terrorist camouflage”. However, while this is a primary reason, it is not the only reason.

Novoe Vremya says: “To tell the truth, Western politicians aren’t very concerned about Chechnya, or even very interested in it.”

Moreover, the West cannot solve the problem of Chechnya for Russia; and it’s only possible to help someone get out of a cul-de-sac if they actually want to get out. Novoe Vremya notes that “the separatism disease in Chechnya is nothing unusual or shameful in itself”. Some Western democracies are also afflicted with this disease: “Some call it Corsica, others call it Quebec, and others call it the Basque country.” Nobody likes separatists.

According to Novoe Vremya, “the problem is not in the disease itself – any nation might contract it – but in the methods of treatment being used.” That is why the Russian government should not have been so pleased about the West losing interest in Chechnya after September 11. Novoe Vremya emphasizes: “That does not mean that Russia’s actions in Chechnya have been forgotten or forgiven; more likely, in ceasing to see Chechnya as a European problem, Europe is also excluding Russia from its group of close relatives – transferring Russia to a category somewhere closer to China and its Tibetan Buddhists, which Europe doesn’t think about very often.”

The Moskovskie Novosti weekly concludes that Putin’s ultimatum could be based on a realization that the military operation in Chechnya must at all costs be brought to an end before the next election campaign begins.

The Pankisi Gorge could be the source of a threat to Putin’s plans. It isn’t hard to imagine how voters and the media might react during the next presidential campaign if Chechnya (from which excess troops would already have been withdrawn) starts producing more helicopter crashes, while the military continues to excuse itself by pointing to a “black hole” on Georgian territory, the source of missile launchers used to shoot down Russian aircraft.

Yet this cannot be ruled out: according to the sources of Moskovskie Novosti, the recent burst of activity by the Chechen guerrillas is connected to none other than Putin’s chief opponent, Boris Berezovsky (via his close friend Badri Patarkatsishvili, currently hiding out in Georgia). Moskovskie Novosti considers it likely that “the besieged Russian oligarch is saving the main strikes for the next election campaign”.

Novaya Gazeta observer Andrei Piontkovsky is harsher in his comments on a possible “Russian military adventure in Georgia”. In his view, such actions could only serve to prove “the fundamental inability of the Putin regime to overcome its birth trauma – the war in Chechnya”. Moreover, says Piontkovsky, another war before another election would mean that Putin is consciously aiming for “small, victorious wars as the only way of ensuring his own political legitimacy”.

One way or another, it seems the Kremlin has realized that it will be impossible to go into the next election without ending the war in Chechnya – the war which has become an ongoing nightmare for Russia over the past few years. However – as is often the case in Russia – the cure could be worse than the disease…

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