May 1, 2003｜Russia
Professor, Niigata University of Management
The War in Iraq has had a marked effect on Russian diplomacy, domestic politics and the economy.
From the outset, Russia stressed the importance of continuing the inspection process, conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations (UN), in order to fully determine whether weapons of mass destruction (WMD) existed in Iraq and in fact was also opposed to American and British military action in Iraq. Some say that anti-American sentiment has not been this strong among the general public in Russia since the end of the Cold War. The large majority of the Russians believe that the problem of WMD was merely a pretext for war in Iraq, in line with America’s ambition to rule the world unilaterally. Consequently many Russians were actually hoping for an Iraqi victory and numerous politicians, regardless of their political wing, used anti-Americanism to boost support in their election campaigns. In addition, during the 3-week military campaign in Iraq, the Russian media gave detailed reports of the mishaps directly caused by the American and British troops and severely criticized the fact that there were civilian deaths in the assault.
Two events have further complicated US-Russia relations. Firstly, Russian Embassy officials leaving Baghdad suffered casualties, when American soldiers fired upon the convoy of embassy vehicles, which included the car of the ambassador himself. Secondly, the US Department of Defense claimed that Russian businesses had violated international sanctions in Iraq by providing antitank missiles, ammunition and electrical devices emitting waves that cause damage to bombers and homing missiles.
However one must not overlook the fact that the negative impact of each of these events on US-Russia relations was in actual fact limited. The reason for this is that in both cases the US and Russia exercised restraint. With respect to the mistaken attack on the convoy, Russia merely officially expressed its protest. In the same way, the US hardly pressed Russia over the weapons export issue.
Despite increasing anti-American sentiment in Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin himself held back from voicing his opinion regarding the Iraq War, unlike the leaders of Germany and France. It is evident that from the outset the president did not expect the War in Iraq to cause a total breakdown in Russia-US relations. The trends in Russian public opinion research should not be looked at one-sidedly. According to the results of opinion polls, although more than half of Russians opposed the War in Iraq, it was generally agreed upon that they would not allow it to cause a breakdown in relations with the US from the perspective of Russian national interests.
With the main hostilities of the war now over, it is time to carefully examine where Russia is placed in the ever-changing world order and how the War in Iraq has affected the Russian economy. Although Russia is emphasizing the fact that the UN should play a large role in the reconstruction of Iraq, in actuality Russia can do nothing but accept the leading role that Britain and America will play in this respect. Consequently, Russia is maneuvering to protect its national interests by examining how Russian businesses can contribute to the reconstruction process and play a role in the development of the Iraq’s natural resources such as oil, regardless of British and American administration of the country.
Another unresolved problem is the whereabouts of the 18 billion dollars that Iraq is indebted to Russia. A major cause for concern is the possibility that the new administration in Iraq will not recognize debts left over from the Saddam Hussein administration. There is also concern that the price of oil will fall.
Overall, one cannot say outright that the War in Iraq has had a positive effect on the Russian economy. Oil companies can no longer put million dollar projects into operation. In addition, contracts for the export of heavy electric equipment, agricultural machinery, and vehicles have been nullified.
However, against all expectations, there are sectors that will profit, such as the tourist industry. Many sightseers have avoided popular tourist destinations in Arab countries and Turkey in favor of resorts found in Russia, for example Krasnodar oblast.
Furthermore, on account of mounting suspicion as to the safety of the Suez Canal, the major sea-lane linking East Asia with Europe, the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia has been further utilized as a transport route. In the first quarter of this year, the traffic volume of large containers transported on the Trans-Siberian Railway saw at least a 70% increase compared to the previous quarter. The paradox is that the War in Iraq has contributed to the revival of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
[Translated by ERINA]