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David Miller Online: Why Russia Will Save Saddam

The United States’ war on terrorism has just hit a major hurdle - one which may prove its undoing. This week Russia announced that it is set to sign an economic and trade cooperation agreement with Iraq. Should this pact become reality then it will seriously complicate, if not destroy, any US plans to oust Saddam Hussein. Russia has yet to announce a date for the treaty to be signed, however it is reported to be worth billions and it would be in effect for five years. Such a deal would be a major boost for Saddam Hussein and by entering into this agreement both countries have given a kind of two finger salute to the US. For Iraq, the agreement would deliver much needed recognition to the Hussein government and place a powerful obstacle in the way of any US invasion plan. Russia would not only gain from the economic aspect to the deal but would also demonstrate to the US and the rest of the world that it is by no means a spent force on the world stage.

The five-year deal would see the two countries develop economic ties in areas ranging from oil through to electric energy and railroad systems. Moscow has stressed that it would not violate the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following the Gulf War and that it is merely an umbrella under which companies from both states to do business. Hence the political significance is already being downplayed and there is no mention of any increased military co-operation. Nevertheless, the deal between the two would have political, as well as financial, consequences.

It should not be forgotten that Iraq and Russia have relations that go back to the days of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. The former Soviet Union was a major military sponsor to Iraq as well as a financial donor and it is reported that Baghdad still owes the Russians billions of dollars from this era. Moscow may not be able to recoup that debt at the moment. But what the Putin government is doing is positioning itself so it can retrieve its money and much more once the United Nations sanctions on Iraqi oil production are eventually lifted. Many Russian firms have existing contracts with Iraq to buy and produce oil but these remain frozen under UN regulations.

Such an agreement places the United States in a very difficult position and any possible attack on Iraq is faced with a new set of problems. The White House is keen to avoid any serious fallout with Moscow and for this reason the Bush Administration has merely expressed its concern and reminded Russia of its obligations under the UN. So far the language from the US has been rather diplomatic however, should Russia start dealing with the states of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ then relations will begin to freeze.

The problem for the US is that Russia has held long standing ties with states such as Iraq and Iran and others in the Middle East for decades and given its economic woes cannot be picky when it comes to developing economic ties and trading partners. The geographic proximity of these states means that it makes sense for Russia to trade with them economically and their oil revenues will be most welcome by their former Cold War sponsor. However it is more than that. It is another demonstration that Russia still feels it has a significant international role to play and although its power projection capabilities have decreased over the past twenty years its desire to be taken seriously has not.

Russia is another in an ever-growing list of countries that have stated that they will not sanction any US military action against Iraq. The Russian position will only harden if there is a trade deal at stake and Russia feels its interests will be threatened. If the trade agreement goes ahead then Moscow would certainly prevent the US from gaining any UN backing for its actions and Washington will almost certainly have to act unilaterally and devoid of any widespread support. Therefore, the Bush Administration must now decide just how much support and sympathy it is willing to risk in ousting Saddam and whether that prize is worth the risk. As time goes by, the US continues to lose support for an attack on Iraq even at home and Russia is now another formidable obstacle in its way simply because of the influence it maintains around the world and with countries the US considers hostile. Russia also still has influence and ties with European states that share this opposition. Perhaps this means that Russia is the obstacle that will prove too hard for the US to overcome when seeking to launch an invasion of Iraq.

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