Iraq crisis: Old friends in the north try to aid Baghdad

Why, when it comes to Iraq, can Russia get to the parts that others fail to reach? asks Phil Reeves

IF ALL goes to plan, Iraq may yet receive evidence of the special relationship between Baghdad and Russia. This would come in the shape of an Ilyushin aircraft carrying Moscow's rabble-rousing nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and a delegation of politicians, officials and journalists (mostly Russian, but some foreign) along with crateloads of humanitarian aid.

Yesterday the UN was refusing to permit the plane into Iraqi airspace, but Mr Zhirinovsky was insisting he would go ahead, possibly today. As publicity stunts go, it looks promising. It should allow both the Russians and the Iraqis to demonstrate what caring people they are, and what a rotten idea it would be to try to bomb Saddam Hussein into opening up his secret palaces to UN weapons inspectors.

But it would also be another reminder that, when it comes to Iraq, Russians can get to the parts that others cannot reach. The Kremlin's current cosiness with the Iraqis, reflected in its efforts to resolve the current crisis diplomatically and Boris Yeltsin's theatrical warnings of a third world war, has deep roots in the Soviet era.

Anxious to consolidate its influence in the Middle East, and to counterbalance that of the US (particularly in Israel), the Soviet Union signed a friendship treaty with Baghdad in the early 1970s, which led to a multitude of arms and technology deals, often conducted on Soviet credit.

Some $10m (pounds 6.25m) of these debts remain unpaid - a sum which Moscow, with its huge short-term debts and collapsed economy, now sorely needs. This, and the prospect of benefiting from lucrative oil contracts, is why the Kremlin has been keen to see UN sanctions lifted.

The Soviet-era relationship was complex and sometimes tense, particularly following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, a conflict which Leonid Brezhnev described as "absolutely senseless". Officially, the USSR took a neutral position, maintaining ties with Iraq while trying not to alienate the newly-arrived, usefully anti-Western, ayatollahs in Tehran.

By the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, there were thousands of Soviet citizens in Iraq working as military advisers and technical specialists. As Mikhail Gorbachev was to admit, the invasion put the Soviet Union in an awkward position, not least because of its multi-million dollar interests there. Russia's current Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, an Arabic-speaking KGB veteran and long-term acquaintance of Saddam, took an active role in the last-minute diplomacy which tried to avert violence. Ultimately, though, the Soviets supported the use of force - marking the first instance of US-Soviet co-operation in the Middle East.

Moscow was never much at ease with the war, which was seen domestically as a betrayal of an ally, and pressed hard for an early conclusion. Mikhail Gorbachev later wrote in his memoirs that "Washington preferred the argument that a political settlement would be a mistake for the United States, since this would have raised the Soviet Union's prestige, something that many of the President's advisers always perceived as not in America's interests."

It is a reflection of the cooler relations that now exist between Moscow and Washington - and also, perhaps, of the price of Nato expansion - that Boris Yeltsin's Russia appears more stridently opposed to bombing the Iraqi dictator into line today than Mikhail Gorbachev's broadly supportive, crumbling empire.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago