ON THE EVE OF THE STORMING OF BAGHDAD: TIME TO MAKE UP WITH AMERICA?

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The incident in which Russian diplomats were fired upon in Iraq by persons unknown has diverted the Russian media from discussing the details of preparations for the storming of Baghdad – especially since it’s fairly difficult to make any sense of those details, given the information war now underway.

As Andrei Kolesnikov notes in the Kommersant newspaper, one’s conclusions about the fate of Baghdad will be diametrically opposed, depending on which sources one uses: “If you watch the Al-Jazeera channel, you’ll think the Americans will never take Baghdad. If you watch CNN – of course they will.” That’s what information warfare means, says Kolesnikov.

According to Andrei Kokoshin, one of the surprises in the current Gulf war has been that the Anglo-Saxons don’t have absolute superiority in the sphere of media and information. Euronews has undermined the television monopoly of CNN and the BBC, says Kokoshin in Nezavisimaya Gazeta; and Al-Jazeera is also finding an audience beyond the Arab world. Kokoshin says this represents a key difference between the present situation and Operation Desert Storm in 1991, as well as the 1999 operation in Yugoslavia.

At the same time, Nezavisimaya Gazeta emphasizes that “it is precisely the electronic media which is used to determine who wins or loses a war in the final count, especially in the military-political sense.”

Writing in Novaya Gazeta, Pavel Felgengauer refers to the “well-planned disinformation operation” which the American military has used to fool public opinion, defense analysts, and – most importantly – Iraqi leaders.

For some time, “very reliable” but anonymous Pentagon sources informed gullible journalists that there weren’t enough troops for a frontal assault, so the coalition forces would maintain a line of defense along the approaches to Baghdad until reinforcements arrived – for two or three weeks, at least. Felgengauer notes that Russian generals immediately started saying, with some malicious pleasure, that “the Americans are bogged down after encountering unexpectedly stubborn resistance from the enemy” – that they would have to change the plan of the operation completely, defending supply lines which were stretched thin as a result of the initial rapid advance. Although official American and British spokespersons denied the existence of any such problems, no one believed them, of course. So when the assault on Baghdad resumed, everyone was caught by suprise, including Iraqi leaders.

In Felgengauer’s view, this represented a convincing victory for the coalition in the information war. The results are apparent: “We are now watching the death throes of the Baghdad regime.”

According to Kommersant, that same information warfare is hampering attempts to determine what actually happened to the Russian diplomats outside Baghdad. Coalition representatives are saying that the attack on the Russian convoy took place on territory controlled by the Iraqis. Journalists working in Iraq consider that a reconnaissance and sabotage group of the coalition was responsible, since the gunfire began after the convoy had passed the last Iraqi army checkpoint around Baghdad.

As is usually the case in such situations, the real truth is unlikely to be established. But Kommersant says that another point is more important: “The place of diplomats is in embassies. Why were the Russian diplomats caught in the crossfire on the battlefield at all?”

Kommersant notes that the diplomats of other nations have long since left Iraq – some out of solidarity with US plans, others out of considerations for their own safety. But Russia, in a show of independence, restricted itself to reducing the number of embassy staff. When the decision to evacuate the Russian Embassy in Baghdad was eventually made, it turned out to be at least two days too late: fighting had begun on the outskirts of Baghdad, and there was no definite front line.

“In such circumstances, both sides – wary of enemy attacks – tend to shoot first at anything suspicious and ask questions later.”

In short, it was a singularly unpleasant incident.

Vremya Novostei says it’s not surprising that US Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow has decided to start a campaign to explain US actions in Iraq. The ambassador found it necessary to take this step due to increasing anti-American sentiments in Russia, especially in regional cities.

Mr. Vershbow even held a special press conference in Yekaterinburg, during which he appealed to Russian citizens to exercise emotional restraint. He also expressed the hope that regional media, which are much more highly regarded in the regions than national media, will be able to explain “the real state of affairs”.

The US ambassador emphasized that the leaders of both nations have already stated that the Iraq conflict will not affect the friendly relationship between Russia and the United States, or the development of cooperation between them.

However, as Vremya Novostei also reported, last week the US House of Representatives passed a resolution (despite objections from the White House) against granting “American contracts for the restoration of Iraq” to any companies from France, Germany, Syria, or Russia.

Nikolai Zlobin, director of Russian and Asian programs at the Defense Information Center in the United States, was asked by Vremya Novostei to comment on Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Moscow. He said the aim of the visit was to “agree on the limited role which the Americans will offer the United Nations in the post-war restoration of Iraq”. Zlobin added that the Americans dislike the stand Russia is taking on this issue.

According to the Vedomosti newspaper, Russia is unable to remain neutral on Iraq – primarily due to its memories of past glory as a global superpower. Therefore, it has chosen “strange tactics: we are crouching behind some cover, while issuing impressive statements about our principled stand”. In order to add some weight to those declarations, Russian diplomats were ordered to remain in Baghdad even as the city essentially became a war zone.

Now that the outcome of the conflict is becoming clearer, Russia wouldn’t mind abandoning its principles and joining in negotiations on what shall be done with Iraq.

However, according to Vedomosti, it would be much more sensible to keep out of the Iraq issue entirely, since Russia’s own problems have only been exacerbated as a result of its “semi-peaceloving” policies.

Indeed, relations with the United States have noticeably deteriorated. Our “friends in Old Europe” probably won’t accept Russia into the new multi-polar world. There’s no question of protecting Russia’s economic interests in Iraq. Vedomosti comments: “If our actively chaotic foreign policy is bringing us nothing but defeat, shouldn’t we follow China’s example and drop it?” For a few years, at least, “during the period of transformation at home”.

As yet, there’s no sign of any such developments in policy; neither is there any sign that anti-American sentiments in Russia are being restrained at a reasonable level.

The headline-grabber over the past few days has been Mufti Talgat Tadjuddin, head of the Muslim Central Religious Directorate. Speaking in Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan, he declared a jihad against America.

In its comments on this report, Vedomosti says that Tadjuddin is by no means an accepted authority figure for all of Russia’s 20 million Muslims. For some years, his status as Russia’s Muslim leader has been challenged by Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis. Moreover, there are other muftis in various Russian regions who owe no allegiance to either Tadjuddin or Gainutdin. Actually, it is very difficult to work out the details of what’s going on within the Russian Muslim community.

Nevertheless, Vedomosti says it is quite possible that a number of “passionate young men” might be found in Bashkortostan who would take the mufti’s call for jihad as a guideline for action.

Vedomosti says: “Frequent demonstrations and acts of vandalism directed against the American Embassy are only the start. We can only hope that nothing worse follows.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that although the Bashkortostan Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning to Tadjuddin after his statement, his words have found some support among some Russian Muslims.

In Dagestan, matters have progressed as far as forming detachments of volunteers to fight in Iraq.

Sibagatullah Hajji, chief mufti for the Sverdlovsk region, was more cautious; he stated that while Islam does give Muslims the right to declare a jihad, what Tadjuddin meant was spiritual resistance rather than launching a military operation against the United States.

President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan was even more cautious: “While I am aware of concern and alarm among Muslims in Tatarstan and nearby regions in connection with the situation in Iraq, I can say with certainty that among them there have not been and there are no calls for a jihad or other such excesses.”

However, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this whole incident has turned out to be extremely awkward for Moscow. In the past few days there have been signs of a cardinal shift in Moscow’s stand on the Iraq crisis. The Kremlin has decided to return to the “path of realism” which it chose after September 11. In this context, Tadjuddin’s call for a jihad represents a big problem for the Kremlin.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes President Putin’s words at a meeting with leading medical specialist Leonid Roshal: “I will do everything in my power to ensure that Russia is not drawn into the Iraq crisis in any way at all.”

During that meeting, Putin noted that the United States is Russia’s largest trade partner (trade volume is expected to reach $10 billion in 2003), so Russia has no interest at all in seeing the US suffer a moral or political defeat in Iraq; not to mention the fact that a collapse of the dollar would spell disaster for Russia and Europe as well.

Putin made another important statement while visiting the headquarters of the Space Forces: he said Russia has an interest in the ratification of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. The president even promised to “speak to members of parliament” in order to “open up the path for ratifying the treaty”.

Essentially, these declarations were a response to Tadjuddin. Nevertheless, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the statements by one of Russia’s Muslim leaders are based on anti-American attitudes within that community. So Moscow, now that it’s resumed a course towards cooperation with Washington, will have to “act while glancing over its shoulder at Ufa, Kazan, and Makhachkala”.

Writing in NG-Dipkurier (a supplement to Nezavisimaya Gazeta), Duma deputy speaker Irina Khakamada (Union of Right Forces faction) sets out her own views on the reasons why the “Putin doctrine” has been so ineffective, even though it seemed so promising for Russia at first.

Indeed, Russia changed course towards a “new partnership” with America long before September 11. Relations with the European Union and NATO were making good progress, not to mention relations with Third World nations.

“It appeared that Russia had seen the light, understanding that it could and should maintain friendly relations with everyone,” and that it had a right to expect this to be reciprocated. Moreover, many considered that the prescription for success was quite simple: “Competence on the part of the head of state, his serious expression and meaningful statements, as well as establishing positive relations with as many other nations as possible.”

However, first impressions proved deceptive.

Our “strategic partner”, Europe, has not only failed to see the real value of the referendum in Chechnya, but is even proposing a war crimes tribunal similar to the one at The Hague. There’s not even a mention of any economic concessions. America, despite its superficially friendly rhetoric, hasn’t even repealed the ridiculous Jackson-Vanik amendment. In negotiations on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, Europe is insisting that Russia’s domestic energy prices should be raised – though WTO standards actually require no such thing.

Khakamada says: “Neither have Russia’s concessions yielded any real results. We dash back and forth, with all kinds of state officials travelling all over the world. All to very little effect.”

The Iraq problem serves as a perfect illustration of this: “We made so much effort, but war broke out anyway, and there are no prospects for us in post-Saddam Iraq, other than throwing ourselves on America’s mercy.”

According to Khakamada, the reasons are clear: “In today’s world, a nation’s place in the international system depends on the extent to which it is an effective state at home – this effectivness is translated by diplomats into activity in foreign affairs.” Russia has little to boast of in this respect.

Indeed, it’s hard to speak of reforms being effective when Russia’s ineffective bureaucracy is essentially becoming a threat to national security. Moreover, the media have “become mired in self-censorship and political orders”, and personnel policy at the federal level does not meet “breakthrough” requirements at all; but the worst thing is that “everything, in one way or another, depends on the present – who simply cannot do the jobs of every single state official in Russia.”

Khakamada concludes that in order for Russia’s foreign policy to change, it is first necessary for the nation itself to change.

Khakamada emphasizes: “Foreign policy begins at home. We have to stop and ask ourselves: who are we? Where do we want to go? How do we want to get there? What do we need to do for that?” The only way we can hope to have effective foreign policy is to have an effective, healthy state: “So why are we resisting the process of recovery?”

It appears the answer to this question is contained in the question itself: who is meant by “we”?

It’s understood that those putting up the most resistance are those whose “sovereign rights” (the expression used by Novoe Vremya magazine) are affected by the reforms.

All previous attempts at administrative reforms (that is, attempts to reduce the omnipotence of the bureaucracy) have shown that “the bureaucracy only emerges from these battles stronger in numbers and resources – which cannot be said for the reformers.”

This is partly the reason for the common belief that there will be no significant reforms before the elections: after all, an election year is the most dangerous time for a president.

According to Novoe Vremya, the fact that talk of administrative reforms has revived does not mean that substantial changes are on the way. No pre-election self-sacrificing behavior on the part of the Kremlin is expected; most likely, this will be another “merry little power-struggle within the Kremlin, bearing no relation whatsoever to efficient state administration, making things better for business, or simplifying relations between citizens and state officials.”

Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer with the Vremya MN newspaper, considers that “the Cabinet issue” will be the key theme of the forthcoming campaign for the Kremlin.

Indeed, says Radzikhovsky, one cannot fail to note a number of coincidental recent developments: criticism of the Cabinet at the United Russia party congress, discussion of the need for a party-based government (based on the outcome of parliamentary elections), and finally a move against the prime minister by the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Radzikhovsky explains: “This is how they’re trying to create and ‘sell’ to voters at least some sort of pre-election intrigue.”

Criticizing the government has long been a favorite game for journalists, says Vremya MN. Now this idea has been taken up by the Kremlin’s political consultants.

This comes as no surprise: if United Russia can manage to get the Cabinet dismissed, that would invalidate all allegations that it is only a “virtual party”.

“Such a move would mean a bold, dramatic start to United Russia’s history of policial battles, gaining it some added popularity in Russia – less than Bush has gained in the United States, of course, but dismissing the Cabinet would cost less than a war in Iraq.”

In general, “small, victorious wars” (the identity of the opponent is a matter of secondary importance) seem destined to remain a favored PR tactic in Russia – in both presidential and parliamentary elections.

What’s more, says Radzikhovsky, there is no doubt that “public opinion in Russia would have far less sympathy for Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov than for Saddam Hussein.”

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal reminds its readers of a recent prediction made by Irina Khakamada: the Cabinet could be dismissed if the political fortunes of United Russia start looking very bad and the party needs some sort of powerful publicity move.

This is what is happening, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal: poll results for March have turned out to be unfavorable for United Russia. True, its popularity rating rose from 14% to 20% that month – but the popularity of its main opponent, the Communist Party, rose to 30%.

In an interview with Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, an anonymous Kremlin political consultant described this as a sad picture. “The centrists have been stuck around the same percentages for months, and it’s not clear what they can possibly do to reduce the gap between United Russia and the Communists. Whatever they propose – it’s all boring, it’s all been done before.” But now it appears that an idea to save the party had been found.

However, as Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal points out, most of the substantial grievances directed at the Cabinet have been borrowed from the Union of Right Forces: for example, points about taxation reforms, the development of small and medium-sized business, and reforms to state service.

This also applies to the idea about changing the law on the government to give the party which wins the parliamentary elections the right to form the Cabinet. According to rumors, the Unity faction has already drafted some amendments to that effect.

According to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the Kremlin’s plan is to have the current Duma pass these amendments only in the first reading: “In the event that United Russia loses the elections, the amendments will be forgotten.”

Anatoly Kostiukov, an observer with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, is convinced that they’ll come to arrest Mikhail Kasianov no later than December 13: since on December 14, when voters go to the polls, such an arrest would be unable to affect the election outcome – and without that, there wouldn’t be any point in arresting him.

Kostiukov writes: “Recent accusations by Vladimir Kolesnikov – who has allegedly detected some impropriety on Kasianov’s part in relation to fishing quotas – have been universally interpreted as a pre-campaign PR attack. It would be hard to draw any other conclusion.”

Indeed, as Kostiukov explains, “permission from the very top” is required in order to go after the prime minister. Apparently, that permission has been given.

In order to establish itself on the political stage, United Russia needs a decisive victory. It would be hard to win with only the slogan of “We love Putin!” There are more than enough Putin supporters in Russia, and besides, campaigning “for” something is less effective than campaigning “against”. So there is no choice: the Cabinet has been allocated the role of scapegoat.

Moreover, Russia’s election campaigns usually overlap with the winter heating season – and, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta ironically points out, next winter, there are likely to be as many heating supply problems as ever. But this time the Kasianov Cabinet will be to blame, rather than negligent city mayors or regional leaders, as in winters gone by. There will also be inflation, and utilities tariffs will rise…

Kostiukov says it should be assumed that everything about Kasianov will be held against him – and one significant point here is that he was initially promoted by “Yeltsin’s Family”, someone imposed on Putin against Putin’s will. “It wouldn’t take much skill to set up Kasianov’s dismissal, or even his arrest, as a symbolic act of rejecting that cursed legacy.” But Kasianov has never been a particularly valued individual for “Yeltsin’s Family”, and there is not a single influential interest group these days which might decide to step in and defend him.

In short, Kasianov is truly an ideal candidate for a campaign sacrifice.

In another article, Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out that certain objective circumstances might interfere with attempts by the Kremlin’s political consultants to liven up the stagnant campaign scene.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that all major political forces are relying on the “inertia scenario”, which entails a relatively tranquil social background: budget revenues will keep flowing in, pensions and state-sector wages will be paid out and raised on schedule.

However, if the US operation in Iraq – which, as the media agrees, is entering its final phase – ends fairly soon, then oil prices might fall drastically.

For Russia, the economic and political consequences of this are unpredictable. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta puts it, the main myth of the present regime could be cast into doubt: its key concept is “stability”, or citizens’ confidence in what tomorrow will bring.

This is precisely what supports President Putin’s stratospheric popularity rating. “But as soon as the public realizes that Putin’s stability rests on the same foundation as Leonid Brezhnev’s (high oil prices rather than skillful economic management), that will be very bad news for the powers-that-be.”

Needless to say, the regime will try to postpone this unpleasant moment of truth until after the elections. The prescription for doing that has been known since 1996: money will have to be borrowed, from anywhere at all, on any terms.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reminds its readers that these tactics eventually led to the default of 1998 and Putin’s appearance on the political stage; but then again, all this occurred once the 1996 campaign problems had been left behind.

For the time being, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Russian administration still holds out the hope that America – “if we ask it nicely” – will not drop oil prices immediately after it takes Baghdad, but might wait for a year or so.

Thus, it becomes clear that there is no reason for Russia to continue arguing with the United States over Iraq.

Of course, strategic partnership on America’s terms holds little pleasure for the Kremlin. As Kommersant-Vlast magazine observes, it’s hard for a former superpower to reconcile itself to the role of “a large version of Ethiopia or Albania”.

Moreover, Putin has found himself caught in the cross-fire. The Communists and patriots are accusing him of cowardice for not really defending “Saddam Hussein, a long-time friend of Russia”. On the other hand, the liberals are criticizing Putin for refusing to join the coalition: “Now Russia will not only lose Iraq, but risks losing America as well.”

Nonetheless, it is clear that neither a military-political scandal over diplomats coming under fire nor any dramatic moves by Russian Muslims can now alter the Kremlin’s determination to resume its previous course: cooperation with the United States.

This has also been confirmed by Condoleezza Rice’s lightning visit to Moscow. The results of her meeting with Vladimir Putin bear witness that now is not the time to quarrel. For the United States, the current priority is Baghdad; for Russia, the priority is preparing for elections.

And if, later on, something does fail to go entirely according to plan – well, that will be later, not now.

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