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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Detente to Die Young

Last week Russia, together with France and Germany, reluctantly approved a UN Security Council resolution that lifted economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990, legalized the U.S.-led administration in Baghdad and allowed Washington to resume export of Iraqi oil to finance postwar reconstruction.

After the vote, French government officials, including President Jacques Chirac, declared that the UN affirmation of the postwar reality in Iraq was not an endorsement in retrospect of the U.S.-led invasion. Moscow, which during the last several months of the Iraqi crisis had often echoed French opinions, this time did not copy the "no legalization" theme. The climbdown on Iraq that the Kremlin performed in the space of one week was too steep, too painful and accompanied with too much infighting inside the ruling elite to try to cover it up with empty talk about legality.

The only Russian official who ecstatically declared the UN resolution on Iraq to be a "victory" was Vladimir Putin's foreign policy advisor, Sergei Prikhodko. During the run-up to the war, Prikhodko and chief of the presidential administration Alexander Voloshin tried desperately to forge a deal with Washington on Iraq, but ultimately failed, opposed by the united forces of the anti-American lobby.

This time the pro-Western lobby succeeded, but the call was also very close. Just recently during British Prime Minister Tony Blair's short working visit to Moscow that was expected to close the gap between Russia and the Anglo-American coalition, Putin announced that he would not allow the lifting of sanctions until UN inspectors operating in Iraq under the guard of UN peacekeepers officially verified the liquidation of all weapons of mass destruction.

When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Moscow on May 13 to press the Russians into supporting an early lifting of sanctions, the talks seemed to begin with the sides wide apart. While Powell was in Moscow, several Russian strategic bombers --Tu-95 Bears and Tu-160 Blackjacks -- flew from a base in the Volga region to the Indian Ocean to simulate an attack by nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missiles on U.S. Navy ships and the main U.S. air base in the region at Diego Garcia.

The mission by long-range bombers was coordinated with a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean by a large task force of Russian surface ships and nuclear attack submarines (sent to the region before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime), which simulated attacks on U.S. aircraft carrier groups. The Defense Ministry did not make much of a secret of the purely anti-American nature of the Indian Ocean military exercise and leaked the details to friendly journalists in an apparent attempt to influence foreign policy decision-making.

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Under growing public pressure to reform a wasteful Soviet-style military, the generals are desperately trying to retain the United States as their main antagonist, hoping this will result in a drastic growth in defense spending sometime in the future and help keep an extended armed forces structure at present. The apparent victory by pro-Western forces did not change the Defense Ministry's underlying anti-American posture.

When Paris announced it would not use its veto in the UN Security Council, Russia was left isolated. Putin was persuaded that if Moscow continued to be stubborn for too long, the cherished summit with U.S. President George W. Bush and other world leaders in St. Petersburg would be ruined.

But how long will this new detente last? This week an Iranian opposition group disclosed evidence of two previously unknown uranium enrichment facilities near Tehran. With the United States and Iran already clashing over the future of Iraq and the presence of Western forces in the country, a new acute confrontation seems inevitable.

Russia supplies Iran with nuclear technology and advanced conventional weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles. After the vote in the UN, Washington does not need to placate Moscow as much as before, and pressure is mounting to force an end to the construction of the nuclear power reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf.

In fact, the Bush administration seems to be moving toward sending the Kremlin an ultimatum: End Bushehr or we will bomb it to bits anyway. The St. Pete summit may still survive the new controversy, but the strain is growing. Russia is scheduled to supply enriched uranium to fuel the Bushehr reactor in the coming months, while the U.S. is adamant this should not happen.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.