Russia may have avoided a full-scale political crisis, at least temporarily, thanks to the Bush administration’s decision in mid-March not to pursue a U.N. Security Council vote on its latest resolution on Iraq. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin had appeared ready to accept Washington’s planned “regime change” in Baghdad in exchange for a piece of the post-Saddam oil pie and Washington’s recognition of the Chechen conflict as a part of the global “War on Terror,” but Putin surprised the Bush White House in February when he not only aligned himself with Paris and Berlin in opposing the war but threatened to veto any U.N. resolution that would have opened the door to U.S. military action.

The Russian president, a former KGB officer, was forced by threats from his political patrons—the Boris Yeltsin “family,” which apparently was considering forcing Yeltsin’s chosen successor into early retirement—to seek support from elements in the Russian defense/security apparatus (the siloviky, or “power boys” from the “power ministries,” especially the FSB, the KGB’s successor).  These siloviky, along with their allies in state-controlled oil companies who lack the American contacts of family-connected private firms and have maintained friendlier ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime, have mounted an internal resistance to the influence of the family and related “raw-materials oligarchs” from the private oil and gas sector.  Putin’s Iraq shift was likely a signal to those unhappy with the continuing political and economic dominance of the family: By changing the pro-American Kremlin line favored by the Yeltsin clan and its allies, Putin was demonstrating his willingness to form an anti-family coalition and fight back.

In March, as the United States prepared for war, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov continued to protest, with Ivanov repeatedly threatening to veto any U.S.-backed war resolution.  At the same time, divisions within the Russian elite over foreign policy appeared to widen as the war with Iraq approached.  Yevgeni Primakov, Russia’s former foreign minister and prime minister, as well as an ex-chief of the postcommunist Foreign Intelligence Service, made a sudden visit to Baghdad, reportedly proposing to his old friend Saddam Hussein a plan to avert war: Saddam would formally step down, handing power over to one of his sons; Russia would guarantee his personal security; Baghdad would take further steps to satisfy U.N. weapons inspectors; and Russia would continue to block U.S. war moves.  Thus, “regime change” would be avoided, and Russia’s “economic interests” would be protected.  (Moscow is naturally concerned that Washington will ignore current contracts between Baghdad and Russian oil firms in a post-Saddam scenario.)  At the same time, well-known family agent and Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin flew to Washington, allegedly to reassure the Bush White House that the Kremlin would not use its U.N. veto, as well as to nail down post-Saddam economic concessions to Russia.

Meanwhile, Putin took what appeared to be the next step in a full-scale assault on the family, announcing a reorganization of the “power ministries,” with the FSB regaining control over the Border Troops (once an integral part of the KGB) along with important elements of FAPSI (the Russian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency), responsible for electronic and technical espionage and communications security.  (FAPSI was abolished, divided between the FSB and the Ministry of Defense.)  As part of the shakeup, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev also reportedly gained control over Russia’s electronic-voting tabulation system, which could prove handy for Putin and political parties favored by the siloviky with parliamentary elections approaching later this year and the presidential election set for March 2004.  The anti-family siloviky were clearly gaining clout in the Putin Kremlin, and rumors of an impending government shakeup—with longtime family ally Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov pegged as the chief target—began circulating within the Moscow Ring Road.

At this point, Putin appeared to lose his nerve: He began making fewer comments about Iraq, and the seemingly imminent government shakeup has not yet materialized.  Russian media accounts claimed that the U.S. decision to withdraw its war resolution had suited Putin perfectly: He was able to avoid a costly confrontation with Washington, while satisfying those who had favored a more pro-European and antiwar policy.  With pressure mounting on Putin to force a showdown with the family, and a possible full-scale Moscow political crisis—which could conceivably have involved the use of force by the opposing camps—approaching, Bush had given Putin an opportunity to avoid pulling the U.N.-veto trigger.  Such a course may have been suggested to President Bush by Putin’s family-connected chief of staff, Voloshin, during his Washington trip.  The family would likely have perceived a U.N. veto as a hostile action, while the siloviky may well have regarded it as their signal for the next move against the Yeltsin clan.  Now, the family can regroup and plan its next step, and the siloviky may have lost the momentum in their battle with the Yeltsin clan.

With the Bush White House still looking to Putin’s Kremlin for support in its War on Terror, with the rebuilding of Iraq ahead, and with an Israeli-Palestinian settlement—in which Russia could play an important mediating role—an absolute necessity for securing stability in the volatile Middle East, Washington had better take account of Russian internal political divisions if it wishes to understand Russia’s likely reactions to U.S. moves.