Washington's latest ally

How will Russia respond to a US attack on Iraq? Although US occupation of Iraq's oilfields will hurt Russia considerably, the Kremlin will accept the outcome as it has neither the will nor the desire to challenge US hegemony.

Boris Kagarlitsky

FOR the Russian government, the war on terror, first and foremost, means fighting against the Chechen rebels. Immediately after 11 September the Russian president explained that what was happening around the World Trade Center in New York and what was happening in the Chechen mountains were just two different fronts of the same war. Thus the Russian leadership was expecting to get Western support for its own domestic policies and an end of international criticism of the Russian government's terrible human rights record.

These expectations were only partly fulfilled. The Bush administration generously accepted Moscow's support but offered very little in compensation. The US government continued to criticise the Russian military for not being willing to take the Chechens' right seriously. However Moscow had no escape route. The more it began sinking into the swamp of an endless domestic war, the more dependent it was on the United States.

To make things worse, the Kremlin's international position has been weakened by the hostage crisis of 23-26 October in Moscow. On the evening of 23 October, all Russian television channels interrupted their broadcasts to report that a group of Chechen fighters had seized the Moscow theatre centre where the Nord-Ost musical was being performed. More than 800 people were taken hostage. The fighters placed explosives all over the building, promising to blow themselves up together with their captives. They wanted President Putin to start peace negotiations with the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov - a demand which Russian officials first declared unacceptable and later said  was impossible to understand.

Later, when it became clear that the Chechens were not serious in their threats to blow up, the building was stormed. The attack resulted in massive loss of lives. The Chechen fighters (the oldest of them being 23 years old) were all killed and 130 hostages died - not because of shooting but as a consequence of a gas attack by special forces.

Immediately after the October crisis many commentators correctly predicted that Moscow would drop its last remaining reservations about American policy towards Iraq. The Kremlin needed approval but again got a very dubious reward. In Prague and Moscow G W Bush demonstrated his sympathy with the Russian leader but insisted that the interests of civilians should be taken into consideration - something Russian troops couldn't do even if they wanted: the poorly paid and unmotivated army needs to loot civilians to survive.

Only choice

Russia voted together with the US in the United Nations on the Iraq resolution. No matter how unpopular at home, this was the only choice for the Kremlin. Domestic public opinion has to shut up after the October events - people are frightened. International public opinion, for the leaders of Russia, is nothing but the opinion of Washington.

The next stop is the actual military operation in Iraq. So far Moscow has refused to promise any direct military or intelligence support to American troops but it is not all too clear that the Kremlin will not do this if Washington presses harder.

It is true that Iraq owes Russia millions of dollars and several times offered to pay the debt. During the 1990s one of the reasons why Russia kept insisting on easing sanctions on Iraq was because it was expecting this money to be paid back once 'normal' economic relations became possible. However the Kremlin has  never dared to challenge the American line on Iraq consistently. Now when Washington has taken a tougher line on Iraq, Moscow simply prefers to forget about its interests there. In any case it seems very clear that if the US comes out as a winner, it will take all.

So, while Russian oil barons are unhappy about the Americans pushing them aside, they feel that there is nothing one can do. At least it is better to stay with the strongest. Naturally, there was a minority tendency around LUKoil Company which made some noises explaining the need for Russia to show solidarity with OPEC producers, but that never reached the level of dissidence.

American occupation of Iraq's oilfields, if it happens according to the administration's plans, will lead to additional problems for us in Russia. Unless the war drags on, oil prices will drop, and the OPEC will face a serious crisis. And Russia, which parasitically enjoyed high oil prices achieved by OPEC's policies, will be forced to accept a new reality in which oil will not be in short supply anymore. This automatically means the end of economic growth at home and problems with debt repayment abroad. This will also mean increasing conflicts between different oligarchic clans fighting to divide the shrinking pie.

But all this doesn't seem to bother the Kremlin. As long as the political situation remains under control and elections can be fixed properly, nobody cares about the mid-term and long-term consequences of decisions made.

And anyhow, the Kremlin has no choice!               

Boris Kagarlitsky is Director of the Institute of Globalisation Studies in Moscow.