THE SUDDEN END OF THE WAR IN IRAQ, AND NEW RUSSIAN-AMERICAN RELATIONS: NOBODY LOVES A WINNER

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The topic of Iraq continues to dominate the headlines in Russia, though there has been a noticeable change in genre: the papers have moved from straight reporting to commentary and analysis.

The virtually bloodless taking of Baghdad came as a real shock to the Russian media. “America has won again!” says Andrei Kolesnikov in Izvestia – and his words could serve as an epigraph for most articles about Iraq.

Alexander Minkin’s article in Moskovskii Komsomolets is titled “The Bitter Taste of Somebody Else’s Victory”.

Minkin considers that the primary reason why the US victory has aroused “such great annoyance” in Russia is because it is being compared to Russia’s own campaign in Chechnya.

The comparison is not in Russia’s favor.

“Twenty-one days of war, compared to seven-and-a-half years of war. US and British casualties: 132 dead. Our casualties in Chechnya: over 10,000 dead. Around 4,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. In Chechnya, over 100,000 civilians have been killed. Iraq is a long way from America, across the ocean. Chechnya is right next to – or within – Russia.”

Further comparisons may be made, but they still don’t answer the main question: why have things turned out this way? “For them, why has it been easy, fast, with few casualties on alien territory? For us, why has it involved high casualties on our own territory, and why has it lasted so long?”

Pavel Felgengauer aims to forumulate his own answer to this question in Novaya Gazeta: “In strategic terms, the Americans have won in the best style – they demolished the enemy, without destroying them or shedding excess blood.” And this is precisely why “the political prospects have brightened for establishing a allied regime in Iraq which will be friendly towards the US in the long term.”

“Perhaps it’s simply that we envy the Americans,” says Andrei Kolesnikov in Izvestia. “With a steady hand, they are able to draw their axis of evil on the map.” But Russia can only dream of doing that: we are forced to warmly embrace the tyrants “who live in our geopolitical underbelly”, says Kolesnikov, “because we are dependent on their natural resources”. He notes a recent visit to Moscow by President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan (known as the Turkmenbashi).

Sadly enough, says Kolesnikov, all we can do is admit that in the wake of the American victory in Iraq, “we have been left alone with our anti-Americanism – greatly deluded about being part of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, with chimerical visions of Central Asian geopolitics, and that unanswered question: Why isn’t Russia the United States?”

The conclusion is clear: that which may be described as “a social consensus of anti-Americanism” in Russian society (VTsIOM polls show that 55% of respondents dislike the United States, Public Opinion Foundation polls indicate 54%) is probably provoked by an awareness of our own inability “to catch up with the US in anything at all”.

Profil magazine offers its readers some ideas about the nature of Russia’s anti-Americanism.

Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the CIS Institute, says in Profil that President Bush’s doctrine “happens to touch upon the basic interests of ordinary Russian citizens” – and this couldn’t fail to have an impact on the attitudes of those citizens to Americans in general.

According to Zharikhin, the problem is that Russians and Americans have ended up with their phases out of synch: “After eight years of a calm existence under Clinton, thanks to Bush and bin Laden America went in for cowboy feats. Whereas Russia, after twelve years of revolutionary upheavals, suddenly decided to step on the brakes.” Putin managed to achieve at least relative stability at home and improved relations with the West. “Dangers started decreasing, one by one. Everything appeared to be going well.” The rules for getting by in these new circumstances turned out to be simple: keep your savings in dollars rather than rubles, go on vacation to Turkey rather than Sochi, and take lessons from the Americans in “what may be their sole positive quality: being law-abiding.”

These, the barely-formed lifestyle rules of Russia’s nascent middle class, have started to crumble as a result of the actions of President George W. Bush.

First, the dollar wavered. Then Antalia became a city close to the front line. But the main point, according to Zharikhin, is that Bush started behaving like a “new Russian” – he did the equivalent of driving his powerful car in the wrong lane and simply disposing of anyone who got in his way.

Thus, it appears that Russians have taken offense at the violation of certain principles of Western civilization to which they have barely had time to become accustomed. And indeed, such things are hard to forgive.

But why have the defeated Iraqis suddenly shown such a passion for the Americans, whom they were cursing only recently? Television images around the world have shown crowds of people jumping for joy on the streets of Iraqi cities as they watched coalition troops pass by.

Once again, observers turned to applied social psychology. The Kommersant newspaper says: “The problem is that a clan-based society such as Iraq, knowing nothing of democracy or liberal values, automatically submits to the strongest. As long as Saddam Hussein had power, they submitted to him without protest and called him their father. But now George W. Bush has proved to be stronger – so he has become the father of all the Iraqis.” At the same time, Kommersant warns readers not to delude themselves. “If, by some miracle, Saddam and his legions rose from the ashes tomorrow and started thrashing the coalition, Saddam would once again become the leader of the nation and the focus of universal adoration. And the Americans would once again become the despised occupiers.”

And yet, according to Kommersant, the unexpected gift given to the Americans by Saddam Hussein, who dissolved without a trace in the ruins of Baghdad, along with his army – “as if they were phantoms rather than people” – could have grave consequences in the form of “a drastic devaluation of the principles which say that restructuring the world by force is wrong”.

Kommersant goes on: “If blood can be washed away and tears can dry so quickly, why not use surgical military solutions again in future, in the name of love for humanity, since they have apparently proved so effective in Iraq?”

The Vedomosti newspaper quotes US Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow: “We consider that the Iraqi people are ready for democracy.” Vedomosti comments: “The statement is arrogant enough in itself, but it’s entirely in the spirit of contemporary American diplomacy.”

Vedomosti has it own view of events: “Over the 23 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, many Iraqis have become slaves. They have lost the habit of considering Iraq as their own home: one is convinced of that when one sees apparently ordinary, peaceful citizens looting stores, offices, and the homes of state officials. Along with their monuments, the Iraqis have lost their society as such. The people who have now gained liberty are people who have grown unaccustomed to responsibility – so what’s happening is not surprising.”

Of course, says Vedomosti, the Iraqis will remember how rapidly Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed – though it had seemed so cunning, cruel, and powerful: “But they will also have many reminders that they did not bring down the dictator on their own.”

In Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Alexander Goltz writes: “The war in Iraq has demonstrated for all to see that Washington now possesses absolute military, informational, and economic superiority around the globe.” He adds: “But there is no certainty whatsoever that the present US administration is capable of using that power wisely.”

According to Goltz, the UN Security Council dispute about whether or not to use force against Saddam Hussein was essentially a dispute over what a superpower should permit itself to do. “In starting a war despite the protests of many other nations, Washington has shown that it considers ‘I can’ and ‘I have the right’ to be synonymous.”

Goltz says this principle is extremely dangerous. “The attempt to restructure entire regions by force could lead to outrage across the Arab world – and a wave of terrorism which would make current Al Qaeda operations look like innocent pranks.”

Nevertheless, according to Goltz, the Bush doctrine does not pose any direct threat to Russia’s security. Goltz believes that declarations such as “Iraq today, Russia tomorrow” are nothing but demagoguery.

Bush’s hit list includes “fanatical ayatollahs, tyrants, and dictators – not democratically elected presidents”. Therefore, those Russian politicians who persist in denouncing “the American aggressors” and stirring up anti-American hysteria are doing Russia a poor service.

No less foolish, in Goltz’s opinion, are those Russian politicians who dream of creating some kind of “anti-American Entente” in Europe. “This idea simply cannot be described as sensible; after all, Paris and Berlin have already started cautiously toning down their statements about the United States. It doesn’t seem at all likely that they would be prepared to side with Russia against America.”

Undoubtedly, in the event that the US continues its actions – in the Arab world or in North Korea, as the papers have been saying lately – the situation along Russia’s borders could become more difficult: extremist organizations would inevitably grow more active, in Russia itself as well as the rest of the CIS. According to Goltz, these are precisely the problems we ought to be discussing with the Americans: “After all, they have a vital interest in Russia remaining stable.”

Of course, such a course of action would have plenty of opponents in Russia. We may well expect Russian politicians to declare that “lying down beneath Washington” is humiliating.

However, Goltz emphasizes, we ought to bear in mind that there is only one alternative: “Entering into an anti-American coalition along with the ayatollahs, Kim Jong-Il, and the Syrian military.”

In that case, Goltz predicts that Russia could become the largest “rogue state” – and the West would once again have a common enemy.

The Moskovskie Novosti weekly says: “Now that the military part of the American operation in Iraq is over, this question arises: Who’s next? Which dictatorship will the United States pick as its next target?”

There are a number of options. As everyone knows, President Bush recently accused Syria of concealing chemical weapons. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld state that most of the foreign mercenaries fighting the coalition in Iraq had arrived there via Syria. Moreover, Moskovskie Novosti reports that Syrian passports for Iraq’s leaders have been found in Baghdad – and Saddam Hussein’s step-brother was arrested while attempting to flee to Damascus.

According to Moscovskie Novosti, the United States is seriously considering whether it should deal with Syria after Iraq. “On the one hand, starting a war right now against yet another Arab nation would mean conclusively turning the Arabs against the US. But on the other hand, if a war is to be fought, it’s best to do it now, when a powerful group of forces is concentrated in this hostile and unstable region. If this is left until later, everything would have to be started from scratch, which would be very costly.” It’s a substantive argument.

But there are also other regimes causing concern for the United States – and first among them is North Korea, of course, especially since Pyongyang appears to have learned the wrong lessons from the fate of Iraq. North Korea has decided to boost defense spending by 15%. It continues working on nuclear weapons. It has passed a new law on military service, which obliges all party and government officials to undertake three years of military training (ordinary North Korean conscripts serve for eleven years). Moreover, North Korea has refused to negotiate with the joint forces of the United Nations in the demilitarized zone.

All these reports have produced panic in South Korea: in Seoul’s view, Kim Jong-Il is obviously taking Bush’s promise to “eliminate the axis of evil” seriously. Understandably, Kim Jong-Il’s southern neighbors are none too happy about the prospect of becoming a casualty of a military conflict between the US and North Korea.

Argumenty i Fakty quotes a recent statement by Kim Jong-Il: “If North Korea ceases to exist, the entire world will cease to exist.”

This threat cannot be disregarded, says Argumenty i Fakty: if North Korea really does have nuclear weapons, as it leader has long implied, there could be a nuclear war on Russia’s border.

Argumenty i Fakty shares some information received from sources at the Russian Embassy in Seoul: “Kim Jong-Il’s defense cooperation agreement with China is still in effect – and God only knows where that might lead, if the Chinese should fulfill their obligations and send troops to aid North Korea.”

In an article about Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s visit to South Korea and Japan, Izvestia quotes him as saying: “As the Iraq situation developed, and proceeding from its own reasoning, North Korea considered that only possession of certain means of defense could guarantee its integrity and its capacity to exist and develop as the leadership of that country sees fit.” Ivanov emphasized that he was setting out “Pyongyang’s reasoning, not Russia’s.”

According to Izvestia, this is precisely what President Putin’s team considers to be the most dangerous consequence of the war in Iraq: any regime that feels vulnerable will now hasten to acquire nuclear weapons for the purpose of “deterrence”.

A Defense Ministry source told Izvestia: “Of course, this doesn’t mean that nuclear war will soon break out on the Korean Peninsula – but in terms of tension, the situation resembles Russian roulette.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper looks at the possible reasons behind the cancellation of Sergei Ivanov’s visit to the United States (the defense minister was meant to have spent April 13-15 in Washington). It concludes that this decision may have been linked to the North Korean nuclear problem.

Once it became clear that bilateral negotiations between the US and North Korea were ineffective, the US insisted on Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia being involved in the process – viewing Russia “as a peacemaker whose opinion is still heeded by the obstinate leader of North Korea”. However, Sergei Ivanov didn’t manage to produce any results; so he had nothing to take to Washington.

But there is also another side of the coin. When journalists asked whether Pyongyang really does possess nuclear warheads, Ivanov replied mysteriously: “Even if it did, I’d never tell you.”

Of course, as Vremya Novostei points out, Sergei Ivanov couldn’t have avoided such questions in Washington; and nobody over there would have been satisfied with such an answer. According to Vremya Novostei, this may have been one reason why the defense minister’s visit was cancelled.

However, another theory is more popular with the papers: the real reason for the cancellation of the visit was an article in The Sunday Telegraph, alleging that Russian intelligence agencies cooperated closely with their Iraqi counterparts right up until the start of the war.

Allegedly, Russian intelligence gave an Iraqi spy information about a confidential conversation between Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi about the prospects of British troops taking part in the conflict in Iraq. Vremya Novostei describes this as illogical. “Talks between such senior figures as Blair and Berlusconi take place in private, in premises which have been carefully checked for bugs. So even if there was a leak, one of the interlocutors should be blamed for it.”

Moreover, a source in Russia’s military intelligence agency told Vremya Novostei that American troops didn’t let either looters or journalists anywhere near the Iraqi intelligence offices. Not a single signficiant document could have disappeared from there. Even if the Americans did find documents of that kind, they would be unlikely to publish them. According to the source, “it would be an excellent pretext for blackmailing counter-spies”.

In fact, Nezavisimaya Gazeta considers that the article in The Sunday Telegraph is only a beginning: ” Within the next few days, we can expect the leading American and European media to pick up the issue of secret cooperation between Russian and Iraqi intelligence agencies.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta doesn’t rule out that this media campaign is being instigated by the CIA and MI-6, which may have decided to leak the secret documents they found in Baghdad to the media, “in order to punish the Kremlin for its stance on Iraq”.

Nikolai Zlobin, American political scientist and director of Russian and Asian programs at the Defense Information Center in the US, says in an article for Izvestia: “Russia could have been a fully-fledged member of the anti-Iraq coaltion. What risk would there have been to Russia? The US and Britain weren’t asking for troops, or airfields, or financial assistance. They wanted political support.” But that support was denied.

In Zlobin’s view, the main reason why the Russian administration took this position was a fear of losing voter support in an election year; most voters are opposed to the US military operation.

Zlobin writes: “Putin has shot himself in the foot, as they say in America, by making long-term national interests vulnerable for the sake of his own popularity.”

According to Zlobin, this stance of the Russian president came as “an unpleasant and unlooked-for surprise” for the United States: Russia “demonstrated its unreliability as a strategic partner – and, as it turns out, also showed that the ambitions of a former superpower still haven’t died.” The Russian-American dialogue established following September 11 was broken off – “friend George” took offense at “friend Vladimir”.

“Has Moscow gained anything from this?” asks Zlobin (rhetorically). “We shouldn’t exaggerate the extent of the trouble it has caused for Washington. That pales in comparison to the damage Moscow has done to itself.” Zlobin describes Putin’s position in the Iraq conflict as “Putin’s sole mistake in foreign policy”.

As for Washington, at present “it is not making any special effort to reach out a hand to extract Moscow from the situation in which it has placed itself.” According to Zlobin, President Bush “has no policy on Russia” right now.

Bush is unlikely to acquire one any time soon. The United States has other priorities, especially given that “it’s not 1991 any more”; we can’t expect the US administration “to drop everything and start developing a concept for US-Russian relations in order to offer it to the waiting Kremlin”.

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Leonid Radzikhovsky says that after September 11 Russia had an opportunity, and President Putin made use of that opportunity: starting to “spin the thin thread of strategic partnership”, although it was hard work.

The situation that arose required great patience, great effort, and humility from Russia in order to strengthen the ties which had been established. Radzikhovsky says: “The Americans are very egotistical, and their egotism often takes the form of outright rudeness (which is why they’re so greatly loved all around the world).”

Nevertheless, Russia had no other option: “Because we are the poor relations, and the rich uncle is Uncle Sam. It’s repellent, it’s bitter, it’s hurtful – but it’s true.”

No capitalist country has come up in the world independently since 1945, notes Radzikhovsky, not even the now-prosperous Germany and France. “Russia will be no exception. Either we have a strategic alliance with the United States, in which case we will have a chance – only a chance – to become a technological 21st Century state; or we shall remain a supplier of raw materials to Europe and the US, without any chance at all.”

Of course, to achieve the former, Russia would have to give up its imperial pride – and there’s no sign of that so far. As a rule, says Radzikhovsky, Russia’s envy triumphs over its common sense. “That was only more apparent than usual during the war in Iraq.”

Radzikhovsky considers that a crude political mistake has been made by the Russian political elite, which has set itself against the United States.

In Radzikhovsky’s view, some simple conclusions are likely to be presented to the Russian public about the outcome of the war in Iraq: “Firstly, we were absolutely right to condemn this war. Secondly, it wasn’t our war, and Saddam Hussein wasn’t our son of a bitch. Thirdly, all is well and life goes on.”

It’s understood that “diplomacy is a game without end”, says Radzikhovsky, and relations with America will gradually be restored – to almost their previous level. However, if Russia should require more than formal smiles and handshakes – if it should require real help, i.e. that very same strategic alliance with the United States – then the alliance “may have to be purchased at a much higher price tomorrow than the price we refused to pay during the Iraq crisis.”

Actually, it’s too early to speak of that. Russian politicians and the public had spent a long time preparing to protest against the start of the war – and now everyone still seems to be stunned by its sudden end.

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