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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

He Who Pays the Pundit ...

During his recent visit to Berlin and Paris, President Vladimir Putin publicly supported French and German opposition to the coming U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad. In France, Putin even made a statement that many interpreted as a pledge that Russia may use its veto -- together with France -- in the UN Security Council to stop the war.

But is the Kremlin's position on Iraq firmly decided? Or was Putin -- a longtime admirer of Japanese culture -- simply trying to be nice to his European hosts, while continuing to bargain with Washington behind the scenes on the price Moscow may extract for not opposing regime change in Iraq?

The Moscow policy expert community is unusually relaxed in these prewar days: Almost no one is expressing strong anti-American or antiwar views. Many recall the days before NATO began to bomb Yugoslavia in 1999, when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov expressed his total disdain by canceling a visit to the United States and ordering his plane (already halfway across the Atlantic) to turn back to Moscow. Today, the pundits who in 1999 were virtually all anti-American are telling the Kremlin not to repeat Primakov's folly.

It's surprising how few and uninfluential are Hussein's remaining friends in Moscow. Most foreign policy pundits, as well as many influential journalists and media organizations, are on the payroll -- directly or indirectly -- of Russian big business. If these wretched "oligarchs" had wanted to, they could have organized aggressive antiwar protests in the media and in the streets of Moscow, as well as a powerful pro-Hussein lobbying campaign in the Kremlin.

But all is quiet in town these days. The political and media hired guns have not been called into action. During the weekend, millions took to the streets in antiwar demonstrations worldwide, but in Moscow only 300 turned up to protest America's aggressive warmongering.

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The Moscow pundit community has en masse downplayed the weekend's worldwide antiwar demonstrations and told the Kremlin not to pay any attention to them. Expert after expert (former high-ranking intelligence, Kremlin and military officialdom) has told me that the antiwar marches were organized and financed by French and other Western special services, together with Muslim and Arab power groups. It's obvious that the same opinions -- rejecting the antiwar protests as a sham -- are also supplied to Putin in the Kremlin.

Some of Moscow's policy pundits were employed in the 1980s by the KGB and the Kremlin to help organize and finance an antiwar, anti-American, anti-NATO protest movement in Western Europe. Today, when the same people tell the Kremlin to dismiss the present antiwar protests, Putin -- himself a KGB agent in Germany in the 1980s -- will heed their advice.

Last December, according to informed Russian sources, U.S. officials told LUKoil execs that Washington will do its best to guarantee LUKoil's vast oil interests in Iraq after regime change, but that the best way to make the oil field claim ironclad was to contact the anti-Hussein opposition and offer financial support. Apparently, LUKoil did make such contacts and this was immediately reported to Hussein, whose agents riddle the opposition.

Hussein, reportedly, fell into one of his fits of rage and ousted LUKoil without delay. All attempts made since by the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry to persuade Baghdad to reinstate LUKoil have failed. As a result of this well-coordinated operation, Hussein lost his most prominent friend in Moscow and acquired an influential foe. In Moscow last weekend, no one was ready to finance antiwar, anti-American demonstrations. In Europe and North America funds were flowing -- claim the Moscow pundits -- and millions took to the streets.

When I attempted to argue that at least some of the antiwar protests might have been genuine, the pundits just smiled in amusement. Maybe they were trying to figure out who was paying me to promote such an absurd notion.

Most of our ruling elite agrees that it's in Russia's interests to postpone the U.S.-led war with Iraq, but that Moscow should in no way risk its good relations with Washington by actively opposing the mighty United States. Putin is, of course, highly praised by all the local pundits for his "clever" foreign policy that has Europe and America jockeying for our friendship. But it seems no one really knows what to do next and which direction Russia should take, once sitting on the fence is no longer an option.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.