Vladimir Putin, prodded by a reporter’s question regarding the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, remarked that Russia, for “economic and political” reasons, “has no interest in the defeat of the United States.” Putin’s comments were seen by Russian media observers as a sign that the Kremlin had come full circle on the Iraq question. In late January, Putin had hinted that Russia might agree to a new U.S.-backed resolution on Iraq and even back U.S. military action. Then, during a February trip to Germany and France, Putin endorsed the Franco-German plan to prolong U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq and even threatened a Russian U.N. Security Council veto of a proposed U.S.-backed resolution—a resolution that, in Putin’s words, opened the door to an “unreasonable use of force” against Baghdad.
The United States had expected that Russia would not attempt to block the U.S. war against Iraq. In exchange, Russia would play a postwar role in the development of Iraq’s rich oil deposits, and a U.S.-backed post-Saddam government would repay Iraq’s eight-billion-dollar debt to Moscow.
In February, as the Kremlin hardened its line on Iraq, Moscow Kremlin watchers noticed that the Boris Yeltsin “family,” the dominant Russian clan, which favors a more U.S.-friendly foreign-policy line, had begun dropping hints that Putin, Yeltsin’s chosen successor, may not serve a second term. (The next presidential election is slated for March 2004.) The reasons for the family’s threats remain unclear, but the Kremlin subsequently adopted an antiwar line favored by a group of oligarchs who lack the American connections of the family and its allies (and, thus, are less able to exploit possible deals with U.S. oil firms). Moreover, Putin’s recent reorganization of Russia’s security agencies strengthened anti-American elements in the Russian military and security apparatus (the siloviky). Putin seemed to be looking to garner political support for a second term as Russian president.
With the outbreak of war in late March, the siloviky apparently began pressuring Putin to mount a full-blown anti-American media blitz, which siloviky-friendly pundits swore would play well in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential election campaigns. Indeed, antiwar pro-tests, which quickly morphed into anti-American demonstrations, were organized across Russia by political parties eager to please the powers that be. Meanwhile, Kremlin representatives of anti-“family” groups turned up the heat on the Yeltsin clan, with the general prosecutor’s office opening an investigation of corruption in the Russian cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a member of the Yeltsin family.
Since late February, Moscow had been treated to a wave of rumors regarding an impending move against the family and its members in the Russian government. The shakeup has not yet materialized, however, and the Kremlin sharply toned down its antiwar and anti-American rhetoric in mid-March. The rumors about Putin’s early retirement have since died out, possibly indicating that Putin had come to terms with the family; one Moscow source reported that Putin had backed away from firing key family-connected officials after an unexpected Kremlin visit by Yeltsin himself in March. Kremlinologists have long suspected that the family is blackmailing the Russian president, which might explain Putin’s recent caution regarding relations with the United States, as well as the longevity of the Kasyanov government.
In late March and early April, U.S.-Russia relations hit the skids, following accusations by Washington that Moscow had sold dangerous military technology to Baghdad, including night-vision equipment that may have partly negated U.S. battlefield advantages, leading to threats by the U.S. Congress to cut Russia out of any Iraq reconstruction contracts. Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice met with Putin and other Kremlin officials on April 7, reportedly to secure Russian support for the U.S. reconstruction plans for Iraq. Moscow still has some cards to play, however, both in Iraq and in the wider “War on Terror”: Washington is eager for Moscow to write off Iraq’s debt to Russia, even as reports from Afghanistan, where Russia still wields considerable influence, indicate that the Taliban and Osama bin Ladin’s Al Qaeda are regrouping and renewing guerrilla warfare against U.S. forces. Thus, in addition to needing Moscow’s help with the Iraq debt problem, the United States may once again need the Kremlin’s services in Afghanistan. Moscow has already opened the bargaining: During a recent Washington trip, Russian Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin let it be known that the Kremlin is ready to write off the eight billion dollars Iraq owes Russia—if Washington pressures Western creditors to write off Russia’s considerable foreign debts.