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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nothing Comes Without a Price

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While it is always risky to make predictions, U.S. military action against Iraq appears to be pretty much a given. The prevailing mood in Washington continues to be radical, and U.S. President George W. Bush's administration remains determined to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.

Much has been said and written about the combination of factors driving U.S. policy in this direction -- domestic political factors, personal motives, world oil-trade interests, etc. In reality, it is not all that important why the Bush team wants Saddam's scalp. Saddam is not a sympathetic political figure, and the Iraqi people would probably be better off without him.

The concerns that the impending U.S. action should raise are not about the nature of the objective but, instead, about the proposed manner of its realization. What is particularly disturbing is the hypocrisy exhibited in both Washington and London in employing eloquent rhetoric that presents the whole issue as stemming from a genuine concern in those capitals about preserving the authority of the United Nations.

All of this said, the Russian government really has no option but to play along.

If President Vladimir Putin's administration is serious about its intention to join the "respected" club of Western countries, it has to be prepared to pay the membership fees. Yet, as is far too often the case, the Kremlin's stance regarding the current pre-crises over Iraq might best be explained by citing a popular Russian saying: "It's like trying to climb a pine tree without ruining your pants."

The point is that, in the real world, it just does not work.

Any pragmatic politician should understand that Russia today has no real strategic alternative to a close relationship with the West. All the other options -- a strategic partnership with China or a Russia-China-India triangle, for example -- pursued by Putin's predecessors proved to be illusory and unrealistic.

Even if Russia is too big an entity to be integrated into Europe, it has no choice other than to join the Euro-Atlantic sphere. Other options, including going it alone, are worse.

It is a fact of life that, whether we like it or not, the United States occupies the big chair in the leadership of this Euro-Atlantic sphere. If Moscow wants to join the club, then it has to comply with the club's -- and its biggest member's -- conditions. Agreement on Iraq is one of the conditions, even if it is a dirty business, and the Russian elite stands to lose a lot in the bargain.

It is very likely that Saddam's successor will not honor Iraq's Soviet-era debts, and that oil contracts that his government signed, by which Russian companies are looking to generate huge profits, will be reviewed. The economic stakes for Russia are immense. An optimist would say that the benefits of joining the Western club are greater, while a pessimist would say that there is no alternative anyway. Either way, a delay in joining the club is unlikely to generate better terms. The later we apply, the tougher the conditions for joining will be.

Another irony of the situation, with relation to Iraq, is that Russia has been consistent in its efforts to preserve the role of the UN in international affairs. These efforts have not been driven solely by a belief that the UN represents the quintessence of international law. They also stem from the fact that, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with the accompanying veto rights, Russia stands a better chance of safeguarding its prestige in the world. The position is a useful tool to pursue its interests, if the world body is maintained as a central and effective force in international relations.

By contrast, Washington, as the only remaining superpower, has been looking to diminish the role of the UN in line with its (quite natural) desire to gain more freedom of action. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO appears to have become a less effective tool for the United States in tackling its policy challenges, and Washington appears to be ready to turn its focus back toward the UN. Rather cynically, the Bush administration wants to use the UN as a mechanism to pass a resolution unacceptable to Baghdad and to further legitimize the pending military strike on Iraq.

Moscow's veto in the Security Council gives it the means to stop the resolution, but using it risks provoking Washington into acting unilaterally (Bush already has a mandate from the U.S. Congress) and abandoning the institution entirely. Bush has already provided reminders of the ultimate fate of the League of Nations in a not-so-veiled (if at all) threat that the UN could well follow in its predecessor's footsteps.

There's no question that, as already noted, there is a great degree of hypocrisy involved in such a position. But, if Moscow wants the UN to maintain its relevance and, by extension, wants to hold onto the last real instrument capable of underpinning Russian prestige and influence, it has to support Washington.

Nothing comes without a price.

Igor Leshukov is the director of the Institute of International Affairs, St. Petersburg, a private think tank. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.