Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, 9 September 2001

An invasion of Iraq: Reflections on a possible action by Russia

by Andrei Zagorski, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP)

Preliminary remarks

This memo discusses eventual action that can be taken by Moscow provided that the military invasion of Iraq has started. However, though it does not address the issue of what Russia could undertake before the invasion, the second part of the memo does discuss scenarios preceding the actual beginning of the war for a simple reason that any Russia's action, feasible or desired, largely depends on the way the war begins.

The Interest of Russia

1. Moscow certainly does not belong to the champions of the idea to kick out Saddam Hussein by a military action of either U.S. and Britain, or of a larger coalition. It is important to note, however that, most recently, Russia has demonstrated much greater restraint in public criticism of the U.S. plans to strike against Iraq than many of the traditional U.S. allies. All in all, though not being enthusiastic about the U.S. intentions, Moscow seems to prepare for an easy, if not a cooperative response.

2. The overwhelming interest of Russia is to sustain the momentum of the recent developments in U.S.-Russian relations since the beginning of the war on terror. It is not only against the Russian interest to endanger further improvement of cooperation with the U.S. Even though Moscow is not supportive of the eventual strike against Iraq, a benevolent reaction to it could significantly boost Russo-American cooperation.

Indeed, eventually, Russia can extract political benefits from a benevolent reaction to U.S. strikes in the same way as it did from its boldly cooperative participation in the war on terror.

3. There isn't any (politically) strong economic pro-Iraqi lobby in Moscow although several sectors of Russian economy have interests in the country. The usual economic argument in favor of closer cooperation with Iraq is the multy-billion debt of the latter accumulated over the Soviet years in course of intensive arms sales to Iraq. Since then, however, the military cooperation has been curbed, and, under current circumstances, the Russian military industrial complex no longer perceives the Iraqi regime as an important client.

Russian companies have been actively engaged in the implementation of the oil-for-food program and, indeed, have been successful in processing up to one third of Iraqis allowed oil exports over the last years. Russian companies are also active in reconstruction, or in construction of power plants in Iraq. However, this program is largely funded by the Russian governmental credits (Iraq is the 6th-biggest recepient of the credits provided by the Russian government).

In fact, there isn't any powerful pro-Iraqi political-economic lobby in Moscow which could be compared to the pro-Iranian one. And an eventual normalization of the situation around Iraq could even open new business opportunities in the country.

Moscow seems to have made the choice between the Iranian and the Iraqi cases in favor of the former several months ago while recognizing that it can (and should) not afford two major issues of controversy overshadowing its relations with the U.S.

4. An invasion of Iraq of any sort certainly will strengthen anti-American resentments in the Russian political class and, probably, for another short period, in the Russian public opinion. In the absense of any real political opposition to Putin, however, this is going to pose only a limited problem to the Russian leader.

Still, though any controversy over Iraq is unlikely to affect the outcome of the presidential election in Russia in 2004, the closer to the election the invasion starts and/or lasts, the more restricted the Russian leadership would be in a cooperative response. The more rethorics it can apply to appease public opinion and to neutralize the opponents.

For this purpose, however, Moscow can fully enjoy its privilege of not being a formal ally of the U.S. and thus not being pushed into the need to formally approve or disapprove of the U.S. action. The only exception – and the significant one – is going to be any vote in the UN Security Council.

5. The single most important dilemma posed to Russia by an eventual invasion of Iraq is the legitimation of such an action by the UN Security Council.

There is a very strong feeling in Moscow, especially after the Kosovo war, that any military intervention in any third country shall receive a formal approval of the UNSC. This has been the major preoccupation of Moscow since 1999 when it saw the danger of undermining the UN and the relevance of Russia's status of a permanent UNSC member.

This explains the strong desire on the Russian side that any U.S. action against Iraq must go through the Security Council.

On the other hand, it is exactly this demand which puts Moscow into a very unpleasant situation of being forced to either support (by voting for or obstaining), or veto the U.S. intervention.

The way this dilemma is solved largely determines the proportions in the official reaction of Moscow to the strikes.

6. Russian Middle East experts emphasize the domestic complications of any attempt to remove Hussein, and the wider collateral damage in the region. The demise of Hussein's regime may result in the destabilization of the country with regional consequenses not just in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict but with regard to other countries (the problem of the Kurds, for instance, which may have a destabilizing effect on both, Turkey and Iran).

Those problems, however, do not appear to be of immediate concern to the Russian leadership. They imply little direct impact on Russia, and remain remote secondary issues. They are rather seen as the business of the U.S. and none (or almost none) of Russia.

Furthermore, Russia could indirectly benefit from mid-term destabilization in the region generated by the U.S. invasion. Those problems may keep Turkey busy – a country which, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as a country of concern in Moscow. They also could divert much of the international community's attention from controversial issues of Russian politics (Chechnya), or from the regions where Russian policy is perceived in the West as ambivalent (i.e. Georgia).

Therefore, the eventual "collateral damage" is rather an argument to caution the U.S. than a direct concern of Russia.

7. While considering its response to the invasion, Moscow certainly will have to consider not only the eventual impact of its action on the U.S.-Russian relations but also its impact on the current U.S. administration.

Moscow would like to see a strong president in the U.S. However, Putin apparently has learned to go along with Bush. Since there is no really strong alternative candidate in sight (though this may be a premature judgement at this stage), the preference of Moscow should be the reelection of Bush in 2004.

Therefore, Moscow's interest would be that any U.S. invasion of Iraq, once it happens, is as short and as successful as possible, and that it does not turn into a disaster for Bush.

The bottom line:

Short of War problem

The major preoccupation of Russia is whether or not the U.S. is going to seek UNSC legitimation for its eventual strike against Iraq or not.

The benefits of a cooperative approach to the U.S. action should overrule the hesitation of the Russian side to appear as a proponent of the strikes by endorsing the resolution effectively, empowering the U.S. to go ahead.

Therefore, Russian diplomacy should seek an early resolution by UNSC which would imply the option of use of force against Iraq and would avoid laying out precise criteria for doing so. Since any other reason may not be perceived as a legitimate rationale for the use of force, this option shall be linked to the sanctions against Iraq to be applied in case of the latter's refusal to readmit UN WMD inspections unconditionally.

Working on the language of the resolution Moscow shall be basically fine with what would be acceptable to France (and Germany). It would have to play a key role, however, in convincing the Chinese to at least abstain by the vote of the resolution.

The adoption of a UNSC resolution opening the use of force option is the key to any Russian action after the invasion begins. Should there be no such a resolution, the options available for Russia's action are going to be very limited.

What role for Russia?

Any discussion of Russia's action after the war begins shall be based on a realictic assessment of any eventual role of the country in the further developments.

1. Moscow can and shall not prevent the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq. Nor can it stop the invasion once it has started. Any action against the invasion (political and especially military) would be neither successful nor helpful in the context of U.S.-Russian relations. This implies that the role of an active opponent of the invasion is not a good option for Russia.

2. The role of an advocate of Iraqis regime, based on existing contacts to the leaders of the country at different levels, is neither available for Moscow. Russia does not have the leverage to influence the U.S. policy and to force it into a compromise with Hussein. Nor would such role be in the interest of Moscow.

3. Any attempt to take over the role of an advocate of the West vis a vis Iraqi leadership is also highly unlikely to be successful. Neither does Russia have sufficient leverage with Iraq, nor can it force the U.S. to compromise on the objectives of the invasion. It could have some role, however, if the U.S. wanted to make a deal with any groups within the current regime to replace Hussein. Here Russian contacts may prove helpful.

4. Russia can hardly be expected to be an active participant of the anti-Hussein coalition.

5. The most reasonable role for Russia would be, therefore, that of a critical "positively neutral" party which would not exclude tacit cooperation with the U.S.

This 5th option would also imply that cooperation with the U.S. on the Iraqi problem mainly should go through bilateral channels while the multilateral track should be concentrated in the UNSC.

In order to avoid the impression of being part of the anti-Iraqi coalition, Moscow should avoid that the issue is put on the agenda of the Russia-NATO Council of 20.

What action by Russia?

The response of Moscow to the invasion, in any case, will consist of a mix of criticism of war as a means of solving problems, and of tacit or explicit cooperation with the U.S. The intensity of both elements would depend primarily of whether or not the strike against Iraq can be justified, at least to some extent, by a UNSC resolution.

1. Should there be no UNSC resolution providing some sort of legitimation for the U.S. action, the major objective of Moscow would be to bring the case back to the UN Security Council.

In this case, the public criticism of the invasion would be most sound in Moscow. The major focus of the criticism would be the need to restore international law and order, and to enact the Security Council.

The lack of legitimation from the UNSC would reduce options for cooperation with the U.S. to a political minimum. Moscow would have to reassure Washington that, despite public criticism, it is not going to be a trouble maker. And it would have to work intensively on a UNSC resolution to address the post-war settlement in Iraq.

Should, however, Iraq use or try to use weapons of mass destruction against any targets in the region, this can help to reverse the official position of Moscow and to improve cooperation with the U.S., especially if such a development would lead to a UNSC resolution which could be regarded in Moscow as an important step to bring the case back into the UN tube.

To accelerate the political process, and in exchange of the U.S. cooperation in working on a UNSC resolution, Moscow can offer Washington its good services in contacting relevant figures in the Iraqi elite which would be prepared to make a deal with the U.S. at the expense of Hussein.

Should the war against Iraq result in a major increase of oil prices, Russia certainly would be cooperative in increasing its exports of crude oil in an attempt to balance the markets. However, the capacity of Russia to have a major impact on the oil markets is very limited, and it can not replace Saudi Arabia which is going to be the crucial actor in this respect.

2. Should the strike against Iraq be at least to some extent legitimized by a UNSC resolution, the response of Moscow would be cooperative to the extent possible (within the "positive neutrality" notion).

There certainly will be some criticism of using coersive power to solve problems, as well as calls for restoring peace as soon as possible. This public criticism, however, would be balanced by blaming the Hussein's regime for the lack of cooperativeness, and for the plans of obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Should the Iraqi regime use or try to use weapons of mass destruction against any targets in the region, this can result in pulling Russia explicitly to side with the U.S., especially if European allies do the same.

Political cooperation with the U.S. within the UNSC as well as within the bilateral framework (including offering good services in contacting relevant figures from the Iraqi elite), as well as responsiveness with regard to keeping the oil price at a reasonable level may be occasionally complemented by some cooperation related to the military operation as such.

The military relevant cooperation could primarily include intelligence sharing an/or sharing the data from the Russian overhorizon ground based early warning stations, especially from those in Mukachevo and, probably, Gabala (to the extent the latter would matter).

Though direct participation of Russia in the invasion shall be excluded, exchange of relevant information related to tracing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as well as monitoring the eventual use of Iraqi missiles could be a reasonable element of cooperation between Russia and the U.S.

3. Though it is difficult to foresee the length and the final outcome of the invasion, Russia certainly would draw attention to the need of an international effort to help the Iraqi people to reconstruct and to develop the country. International assistance and investment would be needed to achieve that goal.

It would be certainly an interest of Russia that it is rewarded for its cooperativeness during the war by obtaining relevant contracts within the reconstruction programs at least in the areas it has been active in Iraq until now, such as oil fields development and the development of the energy sector.

4. Any particular action to be taken by Moscow shall be determined by the following considerations: