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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Economic Card Is Key

Despite Russia's reminder to the United States last week that it could still use its UN Security Council veto against military action in Iraq, Moscow's stance has generally been more conciliatory than that adopted by Paris. This may appear surprising given Russia's record of supporting Baghdad, and its opposition to UN and NATO military intervention against Serbia in 1999.

Yet there is a simple explanation. While Russia's relations with Serbia are characterized by long-standing feelings of ethnic, religious and cultural proximity, as well as the pursuit of geopolitical interests in the Balkans, Russia's attitude toward Iraq is pragmatic. To be more precise: Its interests are economic.

By recognizing those interests as legitimate, and by making clear they could be furthered by the removal of the Baathist dictatorship, the Anglo-American coalition could win over Russian support.

The first and perhaps easiest issue to resolve is Iraq's $8 billion debt to Russia. Needless to say, Moscow wants its money back, yet repayment is out of the question while the UN sanctions regime remains in place. There is, however, another way: The U.S.-British coalition could recognize Iraq's foreign debts and guarantee their repayment by the post-Saddam regime.

The second issue for the Kremlin is Russian business interests. Since Iraq's infrastructure is mostly Russian-built, it is only natural to expect Russian businesses to have an interest in renovating and rebuilding it. More important for Russian business is oil. Since the late 1990s, Russian companies have signed a dozen contracts with Iraq, worth $600 million a year in profits. Yet all these remain frozen as a result of the sanctions regime.

Moscow has a clear stake in the reopening of Iraq's economy -- with or without Hussein -- provided Iraqi obligations toward Russian businesses are honored, something the regime has conspicuously failed to do in recent weeks.

The final issue is more complex. Russia's budget revenues depend heavily on oil exports. So with oil prices currently at around $32 a barrel the country is enjoying a period of economic growth. But if the opening up of Iraqi oil reserves leads to a dramatic fall in the price of crude, Russia will struggle to meet its budgetary obligations on education, health, defense and pensions, as well as to service its foreign debts. The last sustained period of low oil prices, between January and August 1998 (when the average price was $15.3 a barrel), resulted in Russia's financial meltdown.

Of course, oil prices cannot be guaranteed by Western capitals. Yet Western leaders should recognize the sensitivity of this question for Russia and find realistic ways of reassuring Moscow over its fears of a sudden and profound fall in the price of oil.

If the Americans and British can reassure Moscow that a future Iraqi regime will not be prejudicial to Russian economic interests, they will be better placed to secure its acquiescence. In any case, this would be much better than trying to "buy off" the Kremlin with a blank check over Chechnya. That kind of deal would aggravate the situation in the region and reinforce the already worrying authoritarian tendencies within the Russian leadership.

Regime change in Iraq now looks inevitable. Few people will be sorry to see the end of one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in history. Yet there should be a word of warning about future Iraqi political structures. With stability and predictability as the West's overriding priorities for the Gulf region, the last thing post-Hussein Iraq needs is a puppet administration, handpicked by Washington. A regime that fails to command respect from Iraq's fractured communities could prove disastrously unstable.

Unfortunately, because of the tyrannical nature of Hussein's regime, there are no political dissidents inside Iraq who could be regarded as potential future leaders. The only viable option is to seek accommodation with the more "moderate" voices within the present regime, however morally questionable that may sound.

Noises from the diplomatic corridors of Moscow suggest Russian acquiescence is up for grabs.

If Washington can persuade the Kremlin that Russian debts will be repaid and contracts honored in a stable post-Hussein Iraq, Russia is unlikely to stand in America's way.

Boris Nemtsov is leader of the Union of Right Forces and Vladimir Kara-Murza its London representative. They contributed this comment to the Financial Times.