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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Fell in Iraq's Trap




The day after Iraq invaded Kuwait at the start of August 1990, I published an article in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper under the title "The Thief of Baghdad." The basic idea was that Saddam Hussein had in the space of an hour stolen an entire state. The question I asked was how much longer the Soviet Union could remain friendly with leaders of regimes whose conduct was inconsistent with international law and the norms of modern civilization. This article allowed me, or forced me, to play a part in the history of perestroika. The article was reprinted in many newspapers across the Soviet Union and all over the world it was broadcast by serious radio stations as an example of the change in Moscow's attitude toward unsavory anti-Western regimes.


The next day I woke up a sort of world celebrity. I was congratulated by colleagues who shared my views. "At last, somebody has come out and said that a lot of the Soviet Union's allies in the Third World are just plain savages." And I had to deal with some nasty comments from my ideological opponents. "You will get yours back once everything gets back to normal!" What I was going to get back was not clear. Mikhail Gorbachev immediately condemned Saddam Hussein, and the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and the United States held an urgent meeting in Krasnoyarsk where they decided to join forces in stopping the aggression.


Moscow's reaction to the latest events in Iraq suggests that it was my critics who were right. It has taken a while but things are "getting back to normal." The unprecedented recall of ambassadors from London and Washington, the announcement of an alert in several naval and air force units and finally Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's statement about the creation of a new "strategic triangle" including Moscow, Delhi and Beijing, all these are indications of a reaction even more harsh than could have been expected in that tragic August of 1990. They are indications of something else as well: The period of democratic experimentation in foreign policy that started in August 1990 has now ended in the almost complete revenge of the Russian left wing.


Having bet on left-wing radical forces in Moscow, the strategists in Baghdad successfully inserted the issue of "Baghdad besieged by the United States and the West" into the landscape of Russia's internal political battles. Pictures of Saddam became just as essential at communist-fascist demonstrations across Russia as portraits of Josef Stalin. They symbolized hatred both for democracy and for the West. No decent people would want to march under these portraits. The recent renaissance of these left-wing and nationalist forces has changed Russian foreign policy.


President Boris Yeltsin's behavior in front of the television cameras this week sends out a message that he considers the bombing of Iraq a personal insult and defeat. The president has became a hostage to the policy carried out by his circle of appeasing Saddam.


Yeltsin first stepped into Saddam's trap in October 1994, the year after the striking victory in the Duma elections of Saddam's allies - the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As a conciliatory gesture, Yeltsin sent then Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to Baghdad. This occurred at the height of a crisis provoked by Iraqi troop maneuvers on the Kuwaiti border. In that situation, the West took Kozyrev's shaking of Saddam's hand very badly.


Moscow, however, called this an affirmation of its interests in Iraq. It was obvious however that the parameters of these interests were dictated by the left majority, which made no secret of its goal - creating a confrontation between Russia and the West over Iraq. Baghdad played its Russian cards well, too. It flattered and abetted the proponents of great power politics who had returned to the Kremlin, always backing down under Russian pressure after provoking a crisis with the UNSCOM disarmament committee.


Baghdad created the impression that the final word was with Moscow. Iraq made such nice gestures as giving Russia contracts for oil fields and for the export of oil under the UN's "oil-for-food" program. It made plenty of promises about repaying billions of dollars of loans and buying arms after UN sanctions were lifted. These promises (even though they were unrealistic) were irresistible for Russia's generals, hungry for strategic revenge, and for the directors of defense factories. Their lobbying efforts were crowned with success when Primakov was elevated to prime minister and formed a left-center government. The political triumph of the left has resulted in a rebirth of conditions within the Russian elite that are favorable to Saddam - Great Powerism and Anti-Westernism. Moscow media have contributed to this spirit.


In the past 13 months, Iraq has broken obligations that Russia convinced it to undertake four times. That has pretty much negated Russia's much-touted diplomatic victories. Only two weeks ago, Primakov kissed Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in Moscow. (Kozyrev always said kissing was a breach of diplomatic protocol.) This was even as Baghdad was hindering UNSCOM's access to a site. The Iraqis were perfectly aware that this would lead to U.S. military strikes.


But it may be that Saddam needed these airstrikes to drive a wedge between Moscow and the West. He was very successful. The Duma ran a big anti-American campaign, delayed START II and called on the Kremlin to break the UN sanctions against Iraq. The international coalition is at an end. Saddam is victorious.


Alexander Shumilin is the foreign editor of Expert Magazine. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.