Russia: The Politics of Pragmatism: John Beaglehole Discusses Russia's Response to the Crisis over Iraq

By Beaglehole, John | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Russia: The Politics of Pragmatism: John Beaglehole Discusses Russia's Response to the Crisis over Iraq


Beaglehole, John, New Zealand International Review


The Iraq crisis presented President Putin with the most serious test so far of his foreign policy. Frequently described as a policy based on the pragmatic pursuit of Russia's national interests, it was placed under enormous strain by the crisis.

Putin has made the relationship with the United States the centre of his foreign policy priorities, particularly since 11 September 2001. For Russia, the principal focus of that relationship is security, as Russia faces a lot of regional problems for which the only realistic ally is the United States. This applies to developments in Eurasia, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism and Islamic militancy.

In the economic field, the United States is considered an important market for Russia and, as direct foreign investment in Russia increases, as an important potential source of such investment. Scientific-technological co-operation is also seen as providing opportunities in regard to the space programme, and perhaps missile defence. Also significant is the co-operation envisaged in the field of energy. Finally the United States as the most powerful player in the world economy can be a valuable ally for Russia.

The relationship is, however, to some extent a mutually advantageous one. Particularly since 11 September there has been a Eurasianisation of American foreign policy, as Europe is no longer the front line but the hinterland of the global security frontier. Russia's geographical configuration close to the arc of crises from the western frontier of China to the Eastern Mediterranean has meant that it can provide the United States with valuable support, as Russia's role during and since the war in Afghanistan has demonstrated. The United States also sees co-operation with Russia as important in the central issues for the United States of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, North Korea, and Iran.

Serious programme

The United States has for some time been concerned about the need to diversify its sources of energy, particularly to reduce its dependence on Middle Fast oil. The launching last year of the Joint US-Russian energy council looks towards a serious programme for closer co-operation in regard to energy investment, and to the supply of oil from Russia.

In spite of easily identifiable areas of mutual interest and co-operation between Russia and the United States, Russia remains relatively weak, and is not the centre of American attention. The importance of Russia in America's view of the international order should not be exaggerated.

Whereas security issues are central to Russia's relations with the United States, the priority is the reverse in Russia's relationship with Europe. Russia's economic future seems at the moment to lie with Europe. Outside the Commonwealth of Independent States, the European Union accounts for about 40 per cent of Russia's trade. If Europe is defined more widely, it constitutes over 50 per cent. Europe is not a military threat, but the relationship has and will continue to have its problems, as Russia develops a relationship with an enlarged European Union and NATO. In brief, Russia needs Europe primarily for economic reasons. For political and economic reasons, however, the sheer size of Russia, its energy resources and its accumulation of weapons of mass destruction mean that Russia will be a significant player on the European scene.

Volatile region

To its south Russia has the volatile and complex region of the arc of crisis. As in the case of the Soviet Union, Russia's most important relationship in the region is with Iraq, and Russia inherited many of the Soviet Union's motives for opposing the war in that country. For Russia, Iraq has been a valuable client state. From the 1970s, the Soviet Union was an ally and Iraq's armourer and therefore a valuable market. Russia looks to Iraq for payment of a $8-9 billion debt that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, and in the 1990s it obtained oil contracts from Saddam Hussein which have been estimated to amount to about $30 billion. …

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