Amid uncertainty about US war plans toward Iraq, Russia is poised
to sign a $40 billion economic cooperation deal with the regime of
Saddam Hussein that could complicate the White House's military
strategy, while boosting Kremlin influence.
On its face, the five-year agreement - confirmed by Russian
officials over the weekend - might appear a risky move for President
Vladimir Putin, who has forced Russia down a pro-West path, and is
considered an ally in Washington's "war on terror."
Moscow has made it clear that it does not support Washington's
policy of "regime change" for longtime Russian ally Iraq. The
Kremlin also has recently deepened financial and political ties with
two other nations which Mr. Bush has included with Iraq as part of
an "axis of evil" - Iran and North Korea.
But analysts say Putin is betting that his pursuit of an
independent policy will result in a winning hand for Russia -
without dealing a blow to the developing friendship between Russia
and the US, analysts say.
The logic is that if America holds its fire, Moscow will be able
to claim that it helped prevent war. This claim could help fulfill
Putin's goal of restoring some of Russia's former status as a
superpower. And if the US does strike Iraq, Russia's reputation
would still grow in most Arab countries and in many others that
oppose any US war in Iraq.
"Deep down, Putin doesn't think it will spoil his relations with
Bush, and [hopes] that Bush will not see this as an anti-American
gesture, but as a gesture of goodwill to Arabs and the Third World,"
says Georgy Mirsky, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of
Science's Institute of International Economics and Relations.
Iraqi and Russian officials insist that the latest deal, which
would give Russia a stake in developing Iraqi oil fields, and also
includes electricity and infrastructure projects, will not violate
United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq after its August 1990
invasion of Kuwait.
But that doesn't mean that Washington is happy about it. Sen.
Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a senior member of the Foreign
Relations Committee, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that
Russia and the US "have a coincidence of interests in Iraq" and
"it's not very nice to express it in this way, with a symbolic
gesture, even if it doesn't mean very much."
Russia has been a top contender for business prospects in Iraq,
with more than $15 billion in current Russian-Iraqi deals, some of
it in debt owed by Iraq from Soviet times. The Kremlin has stood up
for Iraq in the UN Security Council in almost every confrontation
since the 1991 Gulf War.
"America insists on its right for one-sided actions, but at the
same time it doesn't suppose that other countries might also have
this right," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider who is
now chief editor of Russkiy Zhurnal, a daily Internet magazine.
Even as Washington seeks to isolate Iraq, accusing it of secretly
pursuing weapons of mass destruction, Russian businessmen and arms
experts are reported to be active in Baghdad.
Ambassador Abbas Khalaf, a ranking Iraqi Foreign Ministry
official who has served as a translator to Saddam Hussein and was
sent to Moscow in the past month, says he expects Russian Prime
Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to sign the latest deal, which has been in
the works for more than a year, in the first half of September. …