Vladimir Putin, during his February trip to Germany and France, surprised Kremlin watchers east and west by threatening to veto any U.S.- or U.K.-sponsored resolution on military action against Iraq.  In Paris, Putin told reporters that, if a resolution on the “unreasonable use of force” against Baghdad were made “today,” Moscow “would act with France or alone” to block it.  He subsequently repeated the warning, calling it a “grave error” for the United States, which was threatening to act without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, to move against Iraq “outside of international law.”  Putin had earlier endorsed a proposal made by France and Germany to intensify U.N. weapons inspections as an alternative to war.

It is one thing for Moscow to endorse such a plan, while allowing France and Germany to take the political heat from the United States.  (Indeed, Washington did not appear to blame Russia for the proposal.)  It is quite another, however, for the Kremlin to risk a direct confrontation with the Bush White House, something Putin had studiously avoided since Moscow declared itself an American ally in the War on Terror.  

By pledging to aid Washington’s War on Terror, Moscow had dramatically shifted the focus of its foreign policy, which had previously emphasized reestablishing ties to Soviet-era allies in the Middle East and Asia.  Since then, the Kremlin has gone along with the Bush administration’s decisions to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, to increase the U.S. presence in Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus (Western firms are discussing pipe-line routes for transporting the regions’ oil and gas through Pakistan and Georgia, while U.S. military advisors are training Georgian troops, and Georgia is contemplating joining NATO), and to sup-port NATO expansion to Russia’s Western border.  

Moscow had appeared to accept Washington’s planned “regime change” in Baghdad in exchange for assurances that Russian economic interests in Iraq would be protected.  In addition, Washington put a Chechen lobbying group on its blacklist of terrorist organizations, and Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the Chechen separatists were cooperating with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.  President Bush further advised Congress to forego Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions on Russia (which are renewed or lifted yearly).  Moreover, many Russian observers say the February partnership deal between British Petroleum (BP) and Russia’s TNK oil firm is, as one observer put it, a “down payment” on the economic payoff to Russia for her unspoken agreement to regime change in Iraq.  

Judging by the recent actions of Washington and London, it appeared that both fully expected that Russia would not seriously attempt to block military action against Iraq.  Russia would publicly criticize any rush to war, of course, but would not veto any U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution.  And, in late January, Putin even hinted that Russia might agree to a new U.S.-backed resolution on Iraq, stating that, “If Iraq begins to make problems for the work of the [U.N.] inspectors, then Russia may change its position and agree with the United States on the development of different, tougher UN Security Council decisions.” 

So what changed between late January and mid-February, when Putin made his threats?

One theory is that Moscow may not have gotten all it wanted from Washington and London and is merely upping the ante, seeing the French-German proposals as an opportunity to pressure the Atlantic alliance while enhancing Russia’s international status by taking on the role of arbiter between “Old Europe” and the Washington-London axis.  (Exploiting divisions among the Western powers was an old Soviet game.)  This theory, however, does not explain why Putin would be so brash as to risk a direct confrontation with the Bush White House.  It would have been enough simply to endorse the inspection plan put forth by France and Germany: Washington surely would have gotten the message and reopened talks with Moscow.  Meanwhile, Putin would have been courted by the continental European powers.  Moscow had already helped to entangle Washington with the U.N. Security Council, some-thing that the Kremlin has wanted since last fall, when the wrangling over Iraq began.

Putin’s actions, however, may stem from internal Russian politics, which most Western observers consistently ignore.  Putin’s cooperation with the Bush administration has been very much in line with the interests of the Boris Yeltsin “family” and its allies, who have backed Putin’s presidency.  This elite’s leading lights have accumulated vast fortunes through Russian oil exports—and many of the oil oligarchs plan to break into the American market.  Media sources connected to these factions have consistently taken a pro-American line and have been enthusiastic about the Kremlin’s cooperation in the War on Terror.  Putin, some Kremlin watchers claimed, would facilitate the oligarchs’ projected American deals and, thus, guarantee his reelection in March 2004.

There may, however, be a pothole on Putin’s road to victory: The family and its allies may be planning to dump him.  In January and February, various Russian media sources and political figures began hinting that Putin may not (or should not) run for a second term.  Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist politician and a favorite Kremlin vehicle for floating political trial balloons, claimed that Putin may not run again.  Subsequently, articles began appearing in influential, elite-oriented newspapers, com-plaining of “stagnation” under Putin and warning that Russian voters were growing tired of Yeltsin’s successor.  

It is not clear why the family and its allies may have soured on Putin, though the ex-KGB officer has, at times, attempted to assert his independence from the Yeltsin clan, who many Kremlinologists believe to be blackmailing the Russian president, securing their own safety from competing clans and assuring Putin’s loyalty.  Nevertheless, signs of the family’s designs for an early retirement for the 50-year-old president were evident early this year.

Thus, Putin may have tilted away from Washington in reaction to the family’s plans: His likely alternative sources of support would be found among a group of oligarchs who are not well connected in America (and, thus, less able to exploit possible deals with U.S. oil firms) or among the major remaining state-controlled oil companies, such as Rosneft, which have often clashed with Yeltsin-connected private firms and have maintained friendlier ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Moreover, there are probably elements in the Russian military and security apparatus that are less than enthusiastic about increasing American influence in the former Soviet Union.  Putin’s U.N.-veto threats might have been a desperate fishing expedition, with Putin hoping to get a few bites from those elite factions unhappy with Yeltsin and his family’s continuing dominance over Russia’s postcommunist political and economic system.

By the time you read this, the United States may have either secured U.N. support for a war on Iraq or acted unilaterally.  In either case, Russia’s behavior could tell the Bush administration what is going on in the Kremlin and what to expect from Russia in the future.  Whether Putin stays or goes if is of far less importance.