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
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing