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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How to Avoid Losing the War in Iraq

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The invasion of Iraq led by the United States and Britain -- expected any day now -- is not going to be a "Russian war." The view of the public and the political elite in this country is that such a war is not justified either from a legal or moral standpoint.

Russia is perfectly happy with the status quo, both for the reasons officially stated (the dangerous precedent of unilateral military action undertaken without UN Security Council authorization, and the loss of trade and economic links with Baghdad) as well as for reasons less openly expressed. Russia is quite content with the existing sanctions regime, which prevents the unfettered flow of Iraqi oil onto the world market and the attendant depression of world oil prices.

However, the time has come to make serious decisions based on an understanding of the indisputable fact that war is inevitable, as is the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Thank goodness President Vladimir Putin, while coming out in favor of a peaceful solution to the conflict, has nonetheless kept all his options open and has managed not to damage relations with any major world leader.

The mood prevailing among the political class is very similar to the mood that reigned during NATO's operation in Kosovo. Back then, the country's entire diplomatic capital was expended on "anti-Americanism" and defending Slobodan Milosevich -- with the result that Russia's influence in that part of the world fell to zero.

However, while support for Milosevich then can be explained (the fraternal feelings between Russians and Serbs, historical opposition to Islamic expansion in the Balkans, etc.), the sympathies many of our politicians, including the Communists, profess for Hussein is rather mysterious. It is no secret that the Iraqi dictator butchered his own communists at the start of his reign. Kurds and Iranians -- friends of the Soviet Union and Russia -- were murdered by the tens of thousands using, among other things, mustard and nerve gas. Hussein has not repaid his outstanding debts to us, and not because he could not -- debts to the French and Germans have been serviced meticulously. And even perched on the brink of war, Hussein could not find any better way to express his gratitude to Russia for its support than to announce that Iraq is breaking off its West Qurna oil field contract with LUKoil, Mashinoimport and Zarubezhneft. Moreover, these companies were punished only because they did not stray outside the constraints set by UN sanctions.

Many well-informed experts and politicians consider it essential to use all means to oppose the United States -- if for nothing else than to form an alliance of nations to counter unipolarity and preserve the existing system of international law. While these goals may well be noble, they cannot be achieved in the immediate future.

As events in recent weeks have demonstrated, there are no major states today that are prepared to commit themselves firmly to anti-American policies. Germany and France, due to the political balance of forces domestically, are capable of defying Washington on certain issues for a short period of time, but they will nonetheless remain allies of the United States. Saving face and restoring good relations with the United States are no less a concern than saving Iraq. Those Russian politicians and experts who assume that in the foreseeable future an alliance with Moscow -- and moreover on an anti-American platform -- is going to be more attractive than an alliance with the United States display breathtaking naivete.

Our Chinese counterparts are already surprised at the toughness of the Russian position vis-a-vis Iraq. For Beijing, it is much more important not to damage trade relations with the United States (trade volumes between China and Russia are one-tenth of those between China and the United States) than to defend Iraq, where China does not have any particular interests.

I very much doubt that France or China will veto a U.S.-British UN resolution. Russia may find itself in the role of lone defender of Hussein's regime. To play this role would mean to relinquish all influence whatsoever over subsequent events, as well as the possibility of protecting Russia's national interests in a post-Hussein Iraq.

And we are unlikely to save the international legal system -- in fact, truth be told, there is not much to save at this point. In the past half-century, there have been many wars around the world, but with the minor exceptions of sending an army into Korea in the 1950s and the use of force against Hussein in the first Gulf War, they did not have UN authorization. The Soviet Union occupied Kabul, NATO bombed Belgrade etc. without paying much attention to the UN Security Council. That's not to say that UN Security Council authorization is not at the center of the international legal system. But it may prove impossible to assert the dictatorship of law and universal justice on a global scale in the coming days.

Furthermore, there are other priorities that can be defended and should not fall victim to anti-American sentiments:

First is the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Hussein has for some time possessed chemical and biological (but not nuclear) weapons in ample quantities. And there are no grounds to believe that over the past four years, having kicked out UN inspectors, he has been actively engaged in secretly destroying his cache.

Second is the war against international terrorism and Islamic extremism. Hussein openly sponsors, for example, Palestinian terrorists.

Third is the maintenance of good relations with the world's leading powers, including the United States.

Finally, surely a major priority is the preservation -- as far as is possible -- of Russia's commercial interests in Iraq after the war. If we do not reach an agreement with the United States now about the rules of the game after the war, we will lose our commercial presence altogether.

Moreover, time is not on our side. When the first U.S. rocket hits Iraqi soil, Russia's negotiating position will also take a major hit.

What can realistically be done and what not?

First and foremost, it is not in Russia's interest to undertake any actions at the UN Security Council that could marginalize Russia and keep it from participating in major issues of international politics.

Russia needs to maintain a permanent dialogue with all the major players in the Iraq crisis -- not only with those opposed to military action, but also with the future victors. It is clear that Russia will not be able to retain its position in Iraq completely intact -- losses are inevitable and we should not have any illusions on this count, but every effort must be made to minimize losses.

If Russia cannot preserve all its contracts with Iraq it must attempt to save the most important ones, in particular the oil contracts. Talks are no guarantee of success, but without them Russia will surely get nothing.

Upgrading the level of negotiators on the Russian side may improve the chances of reaching an acceptable agreement (certain issues can only be decided by the highest echelon of state officials), as would the precise formulation of Russia's position -- i.e. what specifically Russia wants to stake a claim on in postwar Iraq and on what conditions. No one else is going to help Russia formulate its national interests, or assist in realizing these interests.

Russia is not capable of preventing a war. But it is still capable of not losing out in the war.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Fond Politika think tank, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.