Balancing Act

George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin lately have been spending a lot of time on the phone with each other.

In one of their most recent exchanges--soon after the U.S. president's Tuesday announcement that he was ending diplomatic efforts to solve the Iraq crisis--the Russian leader repeated his reasons for opposing military action. But he sent another message too: it was time, he said, for the two countries to resolve their differences and get back to business.

That ambivalence was underscored further today. Putin reacted strongly to last night's attacks on Baghdad, saying that only Iraqis should decide whether they wanted a regime change and that "nothing can justify this military action." Soon after that, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who has been notable for the harshness of some of his recent statements, adopted a more conciliatory note. "We remain partners, not opponents," he said. "And we must continue dialogue with the United States so that the war does not bring negative consequences for everyone, including the United States itself."

Will it really be that easy? In the wake of the past weeks' diplomatic maneuverings, Russia's threat to use its Security Council veto against any resolution authorizing the use of force has raised the possibility that Washington could resort to diplomatic payback. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, made headlines in the Russian press last week when he suggested that Moscow's stonewalling could set back Russian-U.S. cooperation in areas ranging from space to trade. "It will be a great pity if progress in these areas is halted or actually reversed because of serious disagreements over Iraq," he warned in an interview with Izvestiya, a leading Russian daily paper.

There are plenty of Russians who would be happy to thumb their noses at Washington in return. In addition to public activism like the boycott of a Vladivostok burger restaurant, the lower house of the Russian parliament this week indefinitely postponed ratification of the Treaty of Moscow, the arms-control agreement approved by Putin and Bush at a summit meeting last year. The deputies, who are up for re-election later this year, are responding, in part, to public opinion against a war with Iraq. Recent polls show that well over 80 percent of Russians oppose military action. And when one survey asked whether the United States is "a threat to world peace and security," 71 percent said yes. Small wonder that several parliamentary deputies have even vowed to take up arms for the Iraqis.

Still, there's a host of reasons why it's unlikely that Moscow and Washington will put their relations in a deep freeze once war has started. Few Russians have any particular affection for Saddam Hussein; many who oppose the war aren't necessarily enemies of America. Lena Volodina, a 28-year-old Moscow office worker, seems fairly typical when she condemns U.S. policy in the strongest of terms--then quickly adds: "We don't hate the whole country." And as important as public emotions might be, Russia's diplomatic opposition to American action against Iraq is entirely unsentimental--a stark contrast to the messy and usually inconsequential bluster of Yeltsin-era foreign policy. Mikhail Margelov, a member of the Russian senate and a foreign-policy adviser to President Putin, describes his country's approach to Iraq as "very cold and pragmatic." Russia, he says, knows that it needs good relations with the United States--but that doesn't mean overriding Moscow's own interests. "We have agreed that we can disagree and not be enemies," he insists.

Events will soon show whether Margelov is just being optimistic. Putin now faces a difficult diplomatic balancing act--one that may be even trickier than the trials he's just faced. One of his priorities will be preserving his long-term policy of "strategic cooperation" with Washington in areas ranging from trade to global security. To that end, he'll be eager to demonstrate that his government's refusal to approve a second U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force was a matter of high-minded principle, not a spiteful attempt to defy American dominance purely for the sake of defiance. (Look for some Russian officials to discreetly draw unflattering contrasts with the opportunistic French). At the same time, Putin will be doing his best to ensure that Russian economic interests in Iraq aren't left by the wayside. And he'll be working hard to pick up the pieces at the U.N.--one of the few places where a militarily and economically weakened Russia still retains a voice as a major player in international affairs.

On the face of things, Russia has emerged from the diplomatic brouhaha roughly where it wanted to be. Putin's immediate goal over the past two months was to prevent the Security Council from voting on a second resolution that would authorize the use of force. A vote would have forced Russia to choose sides--inevitably leading to an open confrontation either with the United States (had Russia vetoed) or with Moscow's new best friends in Europe, the French and Germans (had Russia abstained or sided with Washington). Still, Moscow's sigh of relief at averting that mess is already giving way to a new round of apprehension as Russians worry about the future of the U.N. as war begins without explicit U.N. approval. "Bush is destroying the system of international order that exists in the world," argues Mikhail Rostovsky, a journalist at the Moscow daily paper Moskovsky Komsomolets. "Now the world is returning to the 1930s, when the League of Nations took decisions and everyone ignored them. The world is going back to the law of the jungle instead of international law." That particular fear may be overdrawn. But it points to the larger question of just what Russia will be able to do to restore the U.N.'s battered authority. One option: Moscow could lobby actively to participate in the postwar reconstruction effort in Iraq--which might well involve a broad range of U.N. institutions.

Whatever happens, Putin will face the challenge of squaring his campaign for boosting the U.N. with the brute reality that the U.S. remains Russia's most important bilateral partner. Russia urgently needs U.S. support on a variety of fronts. As one European diplomat in Moscow puts it, "The Russians need Europe mainly for economic reasons, since most of their trade is with us. But they need the United States for a whole range of global security issues where the Europeans can't really help." Those overlapping interests range from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East. Perhaps most importantly, there's the common war against terrorism throughout the "arc of crisis" extending along Russia's southern border and through the oil-rich regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The list of common concerns is so long, in fact, that it's hard to imagine why the White House would have any interests in scotching Kremlin efforts for joint cooperation.

What about Russia's much-ballyhooed business interests in Iraq? That may be one front where the Russians are already throwing in the towel. Much of Russia's trade with Iraq in recent years took place within the framework of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program--something which will end now that war has begun. Observers see little hope that Moscow will be able to recover any of its roughly $8 billion in debt from Baghdad after the conflict ends. As for the potentially lucrative contracts the Iraqis have signed with some of Russia's big oil companies, some Moscow politicians are now talking about taking a post-Saddam Iraqi government to international arbitration court if the deals aren't honored. Certainly Russians do not put much store in American promises of fair play once Saddam is gone. "Ten years have gone by since we supported the United States in the first gulf war," says Yuri Shafranik, a leading lobbyist for the Russian oil industry. "Did we get anything out of it? Not really. So better to wash our hands of the whole business." Now that Russia has done precisely that, the big question is whether Putin will be able to salvage any benefits for Russia from the ruins of war.

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