Iraq: No to war in Iraq – Russia and the Iraq crisis

Russian president Putin almost gloated on the TV after the attack on the twin towers in New York. He claimed that the US would now understand what the Russian state’s ‘war against terror’ in Chechnya is really about. But a year and a half later Putin is struggling to maintain Russia’s balance in the new relationship of forces forged by Bush’s response to 9-11.

No to war in Iraq.

Russia and the Iraq crisis

When he came to power, Putin announced his strategy for security. He argued that aligning with US imperialism best-represented Russia’s national interests. He understood that Russia, although being the eighth member of G7 and with a veto on the UN Security Council, had lost most of its pull in world relations after the collapse of the USSR. It was the US, now the dominant economic and military force in the world that held the key to whether Russia would be allowed to enter further into world markets or join the WTO. He also hoped that by being friendly to the USA more foreign investment would be attracted to Russia’s ailing economy. After 9-11 he quickly signed up to the ‘war against terror’, using the tenuous links between the Chechens and Al Qa’ida to further justify the brutal genocide in Chechnya.

Arms and Chechnya

The Bush administration has not held back from flexing its muscles in Russia’s face, most notably on arms reduction. Whilst the US insisted on reductions in Russia’s weapon stockpiles (which given the state of the Russian economy it anyway can hardly afford to maintain anyway), Bush announced a new weapons programme that clearly breaches the arms reduction agreements. The boundaries that the US wishes to impose on Russia were clearly defined in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. Putin was told bluntly he would be given a free hand to deal with Chechnya but he was told to leave his neighbours in the Caucuses and Central Asia alone. Huge pressure was put on him when Russian troops tried to prise out a group of Chechen’s from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. US troops were based in the Central Asian republics.

The approach of the Western powers to the war in Chechnya did indeed change. Criticism of the brutality of the Russian troops was toned down despite the fact that new cases were coming to light. The most notorious is that of Colonel Budanov, who one night arrested a 17 year old Chechen girl, raped her and killed her. Even the EU’s representative in Chechnya, Lord Judd, became vocal in opposition to the lack of human rights in the small republic. He eventually resigned his post at the end of last year in protest at next month’s planned referendum in Chechnya, which he correctly claimed could not possibly be democratic. Now the EU has issued a report vindicating the referendum. Although, last week, in a surprise move the EU’s War crimes commission has decided to look into Chechnya, the criticism is aimed at the way the war is being waged and not at the fact that the war itself is unjust. This allows Putin to cover up the crisis in Chechnya behind the international campaign against terror.

But, in another way, the war in Chechnya is affecting the campaign against Iraq – in the sense that the Russian army’s brutal behaviour is pushing the benchmarks for humanitarianism during conflicts. Donald Rumsfeld has even gone so far as to request the US Congress legalise the gas used by Russian troops during the storming of the Theatre in Moscow in November, last year. He argues it will be useful for demobilising the population to disarm the troops amongst them when the US forces invade Iraq. He ignores the fact that the use of gas by state elite forces killed almost a third of the 600 hostages in the Theatre.

Despite Putin’s attempts to align Russia with the US, he cannot turn his back on Europe. After all, Europe is Russia’s main trading partner. 40% of the gas it exports goes to Germany alone. Russia’s diplomatic elite originally tried to use this crisis to try and build Russia up as a force that can act as an intermediary between the US and mainland Europe but in recent days they have been forced to change tack and have been trying to save the credibility of the UN as a body that can provide at least some protection from US hegemony.

To try and find an acceptable compromise Putin has been sending its diplomats all over the world to try to broker an agreement. Foreign minister Igor Ivanov went to China where he threatened that Russia would veto a second UN resolution. Former Premier Yevgeny Primakov has been to Baghdad to pressurise his friend Saddam Hussein to comply with the UN demands. Duma speaker Gennady Seleznov followed him. In turn, Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, has been in Moscow. Putin himself has been on a highly publicised visit to France and Germany. To maintain links with the US, however, there have been phone calls between the two presidents, in which, according to press accounts, Putin has not been particularly critical of the US position.

There has been speculation that the US was originally willing to accept Russia’s apparent opposition in the belief that when the crunch comes in the UN Security Council, Russia will not use its veto, making it easier for the other opponents such as France to back down. Such is the cynicism of international diplomacy. But it is now becoming clear that the US’s arrogance has pushed Russia more securely into the French camp. Now the phone calls with the French president, Chirac, are becoming more important than those with Bush.

Oil

But Russia’s diplomatic corps does not exist in a vacuum. At the end of the day, the diplomats are defending Russia’s deep-rooted economic interests in Iraq. And these interests can be summed up in one small word – oil.

Although Russia currently vies with Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer in the world, the biggest reserves of oil are found in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And Russian oil companies have a large interest from Soviet times in the Iraq oil fields. Ten large Russia oil companies control over half of Iraq’s current oil reserves. Moreover under the ‘oil for food’ programme, set up by the UN in 1996, 300 Russian companies control the rights to sell 40 percent of Iraq’s oil on world markets. Add to that the 8 billion dollars that the Iraq government still owes to Russia from the Soviet era and it is clear that Russia capitalism has a lot at stake in the country.

This was clearly demonstrated a few weeks ago when Russia’s biggest oil company, Lukoil, was suddenly told by Iraq that a $7 billion contract was to be torn up. This followed the discovery that Lukoil directors had been in discussions with the Iraqi opposition seeking guarantees from them that the contract would be honoured if Saddam Hussein were overthrown. Although the contract has been apparently reinstated this affair demonstrates Russia’s vulnerability.

From the point of view of its immediate economic interests, Russia needs to drag out the status quo in Iraq for as long as possible. This approach coincides with the mood of the population. In a recent opinion poll 60% of Russians said they believed that war was imminent and 61% said that Russia should stay neutral. A significant part of the armed forces are also strongly against the position of US imperialism.

In the longer term, though, Russia faces further problems. US oil companies are lining up to take control of Iraq’s oil fields after the US led invasion. Currently, oil and gas exports account for 40% of Russia’s budget revenues. The Russian economy, although noticeably slowing in the past couple of months has still been growing despite international trends. But this growth depends on an oil price of over 25 dollars a barrel. Although the commencement of a war is expected to hike up oil prices initially, a US victory and the strengthening of US control over the world oil price could well see the price falling and thus completely undermining Russia’s budget. It is this that makes it likely that although Russia wants to drag out the start of the war as long as possible, it will eventually jump on board the war train if for no other reason than wanting to keep at least a toe hold in Iraq’s post war oil fields for Russia oil companies. Statements by US hawks about creating a level playing field for oil companies after the war only serve to heighten Russia’s concern.

Central Asia

Over time the position in Central Asia also has to be taken into account. 2002 saw a huge strengthening of US imperialism’s influence in the region under the guise of the battle against the Taliban. There are now US troops based in Uzbekistan, Kirgizia, Tadjikistan and Kazakhstan. The position in the latter country is typical for the region. The US’s policy has been of the carrot and stick variety. Money for the building of army bases and the training and rearming of parts of the Kazakhstan armed forces has been pushed through Congress. At the same time, NGO’s and international bodies and institutions have suddenly discovered that there is a widespread abuses of democratic rights in the country and have stepped up pressure on the regime. Huge financial support has been given to the so-called "Democratic opposition". This is done as a means, not of offering a valid alternative to the authoritarian Kazakhstan president, Nazarbayev, but of making clear to him that he only holds his position for only as long as he toes the line of US imperialism.

It is with some irony that Rumsfeld recently (on a BBC world service interview) cited Kazakhstan as a good example of voluntary disarmament by a state. While it is true that some stockpiles have been destroyed, disarmament has mainly been a campaign to shut dozens of factories that produce Russian designed armaments. For example, the Metallist factory in Kazakhstan, which once employed 6000 workers producing small arms, has laid-off all but 300 staff, leaving the remainder with no money or future. The army is being re-equipped with arms produced to NATO specifications. In other words, there has been no disarmament – merely the taking over of the armaments market by the US. In the same way, US oil companies have stepped up their activities and are even trying to persuade Nazarbayev to sign a deal, by which, all oil from the Caspian Shelf would be sold to the US.

Clearly both Russian and Chinese interests in the region have been squeezed. Only a few months ago the Chinese regime took the decision to set up ‘special economic zones’ on its inland border specifically to intervene in the Central Asian markets. Now they find that there are US military aircraft using Almata airport, just a few kilometers from its borders. Undoubtedly this has been a factor in China’s agreement this week to support Russia’s position in the UN.

Russia in particular has stepped up its pressure on Kazakhstan. The Russian oil companies have pushed through an agreement over the route of the new pipeline. 2003 has been announced to be a special year of "Russian-Kazakhstan friendship", with special exhibitions in Russia and a practically permanent invitation to Nazarbayev to visit Moscow. And at a recent summit in February the heads of the four Slavic republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and partially Kazakhstan) agreed to form a new economic union, with the aim of coordinating their work to join the WTO and eventually restore a common currency.

In the same way, preparations for war have influenced the political life of the Ukraine. The last few years has been dominated by a struggle over control of Ukraine’s newly privatised industry. Increasingly Russian companies have been strengthening their position at the expense of western companies. In response the West has been piling pressure onto the Kuchma regime. The powers have played on the widespread disquiet following the revelations that indicate Kuchma’s involvement in the assassination of opposition journalists. The West has financed pro-capitalist opposition parties and more recently threatened to take sanctions against the Ukraine because it sold an air defense system to Iraq. Suddenly however pressure has been eased because the Ukraine’s air space could be vital for US war efforts.

Population against war

Preparations for war have radically changed the geopolitical picture in this region. Only a few months ago talk was of the expansion of NATO and the European Union to the borders and in the case of the Baltics states over the borders of the former Soviet Union. Now, however, NATO is seen to be in chaos and the EU candidate states have been rebuffed by Chirac’s criticism of their support for the USA. The non-candidate states, such as the Ukraine, even see an opportunity for strengthening their links with Europe by supporting the German-French position.

The mass demonstrations in Armenia’s capital Yerevan in February after disputed presidential elections demonstrate that the Caucasian republics are far from stable. With, at the current time, Turkey refusing to allow US troops on its soil, the airspace over the Caucuses takes on added importance. An explosion of the Kurdish question will also inevitably spill over into the region.

Whatever the interests of the Russian government, diplomatic corps and oil companies, the Russian population is overwhelmingly against the war. However the opposition is as yet latent. This was demonstrated on 15th February. Although there were very significant demonstrations of a couple of hundred people to a thousand or two in cities such as Moscow, Voronezh, Vladivostok and even in deep Siberia, there were not the hundreds of thousands demonstrating as in other countries. Nevertheless, the huge protests in other countries have affected the consciousness of the Russian population and will undoubtedly raise the political temperature in the run up to this year’s parliamentary and next years presidential elections.

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