Viewpoint: A chess match: Russia, Iraq and the U.S

David Livshiz (Michigan Daily) and avid Livshiz
Michigan Daily

Over the past few weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration is intent on invading Iraq. Iraq’s recent offer to allow UN inspectors in the nation did not satisfy President Bush, with even the administration’s doves ambivalent with the proposal. Concurrently, detailed leaks describing the invasion strategy have been appearing in newspapers almost daily. Increasing anticipation of U.S. military action against Iraq has resulted in a debate about the benefits that this action will produce. And as with the case of the National Missile Defense debate last year, Russia’s opposition to the proposed U.S. policy occupies a central role in the debate.

The invasion’s opponents argue that any attack against Iraq, a Russian ally, will anger Russian leadership. Invasion opponents add that President Putin’s anger at Bush’s actions is likely to manifest itself in increasing Russian aid to rouge regimes. Since Russia’s role is central to the debate over the costs and benefits of invading Iraq, this argument should be examined in full. Those who argue that Russia will oppose any U.S. military actions base their argument on two assumptions. The first is that the Russian leadership is likely to see any unilateral action in Iraq as arrogant behavior designed to embarrass Russia. This resentment is likely to evolve into tensions between the Russian and U.S. governments. Left unspoken in these arguments is the assumption that Putin is under pressure from Russian hardliners to demonstrate that Russia is still a major power. The second is that Russia will oppose the Iraq invasion in order to protect her ally, thereby demonstrating her influence in the world.

Unfortunately, both of these assumptions are incorrect. The view that Russia has a deteriorating military and a floundering economy is simply wrong. First, the image of Russia as a third world economy is false. While Russia’s economy collapsed in the early ’90s, over the past few years Russia has made a comeback and is now considered a first world economy. Second, Russia’s military is not as weak as many claim. After the fall of the USSR, it did appear that the Red Army was not as powerful as before. However, in the past few years the Russian military has returned as one of the most sophisticated and powerful armies in the world. The Second Chechnya War, while it can’t be termed an absolute success, has proven that the Russian military is capable of carrying out sophisticated operations. Moreover, the recent unveiling of advanced weapon systems has demonstrated that Russia is still a top-notch military power. This new image of a powerful Russia, held by ordinary Russians and international military professionals alike, has largely erased the same felt by many Russians in the aftermath of the Cold War and thereby weakened the influence of the ultra-right in Russia.

Furthermore, Putin is not under pressure from hardliners that plagued his predecessor. Ever since Putin undertook the Chechen campaign, he has won broad public support. Unlike Boris Yeltsin, who was seen as responsible for the fall of the USSR, Putin is viewed as someone who takes Russian prestige seriously and would not allow Russia to be humiliated. While Yeltsin was forced to act tough to demonstrate Russian power, Putin is now able to sit on the sidelines. The second assumption is equally problematic. Iraq has indeed been one of Russia’s client states since the Baath Party came to power. This relationship, however, does not imply that Russia will come to Iraq’s aid. In Middle East policy, Russia has always stopped short of unconditional support of her allies. In the past, Russia has always acted to protect her relationship with the West before aiding allies in the Mid-East and as of yet there is no reason to believe that this conflict would breed a different policy analysis in Moscow.

What makes Russia’s support of Iraq even less likely is what it stands to gain from acquiescing to the invasion. The single most important issue to Putin is the war in Chechnya that he sees as critical to the survival of the Russian Federation. Many feel that if Chechnya is allowed to secede from the federation others will follow, creating a domino effect that will eventually lead to a small, impotent Russia. This is why Russia has turned to increasingly brutal military operations in Chechnya to put down the rebellion.

Putin feels that if he is allowed to pursue his war in Chechnya, Russia will eventually win. The one thing that can stop him: Vocal criticisms by the United States and the international community. So far, America has chose to remain quiet in its critique of Russia’s military behavior, and the rest of the world has played along. However, Putin understands that a Bush decision to pressure Russia might cause not only diplomatic problems with the West, but also increase domestic opposition to the war. Putin has therefore been very eager to find a way to silence American criticism of his war. Russia’s cooperation with Bush on the development of the NMD was largely a result of a tacit agreement whereby the United States would look the other way on Chechnya, while Russia would agree to the U.S. abrogation of the ABM treaty. With Russia’s war in Chechnya drawing increasing criticism, it is likely that given a choice to support invasion and silence the criticism, Putin will do so.

Vladimir Putin is reported to have quite a fondness for chess and reportedly thinks of international affairs as a chess game. When the issue in question is Iraq, Putin might choose to sacrifice a queen (Iraq) to win the game (secure support for Russia’s war in Chechnya while maintaining good relations with the West). This doesn’t mean that Russia will necessarily support the invasion or that the invasion is advisable even if it does. But to get a clearer understanding of what the invasion will entail, we need to better understand all the assumptions and intricacies that are likely to go into the decision.

Livshiz is an University alum.

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