Iraq Crisis: Russia's links with Baghdad embarrass diplomatic drive

Phil Reeves in Moscow examines claims that Russia helped Saddam over arms inspections
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The Independent Online
THE ADVERT might have read something like this: neglected former empire, with serious health and money worries, seeks new friends to share companionship, business dealings, and a penchant for showing Americans that they are not the only heavyweights on the planet. Pariahs welcome.

The lonely heart, of course, is Russia whose relationship with Baghdad is now proving so frustrating to policy makers in Washington as they put the final touches to their plans to bomb Iraq.

True, Iraq cannot exactly be described as a new friend - ties go well back into Soviet times - but its relationship with Moscow has been recast in the last few years during Russia's slow drift away from an exclusively pro-Western liberal foreign policy.

That much is clear every time Boris Yeltsin lurches onto the world stage with his theatrical predictions that a strike against Iraq could lead to a third world war. But now a far more sinister dimension to the relationship is being presented to the world.

Russia stands accused of using its foreign intelligence agents covertly to help Saddam Hussein in his efforts to thwart United Nations inspectors. It is alleged that Moscow may even have sold - or, at least, planned to sell - equipment to pursue his murderous goals, by striking a deal with Baghdad to supply an animal feed fermentation tank that could also have been used to make biological weapons.

The claims arose in Thursday's Washington Post, and seem to have come from a source in the CIA. Yesterday the Times repeated part of them, adding an account of a meeting by members of the UN Special Commission (Unscom), who in 1996 gathered at a hotel in Basingstoke, Hampshire to prepare for a trip to Iraq.

The Times said an official was seen pumping information out of Russian commission members every night. He turned out to be the London-based "resident" from the Russian foreign intelligence service, SVR. When the team eventually arrived at a suspect site in Iraq, they found their way blocked by Iraqi troops, who had apparently been tipped off.

Both stories have been angrily dismissed by Moscow officials. The Times' account was waved aside by the Federal Security Service. "Any sensible person can see it lacks common sense and logic," said spokesman Yuri Kobaladze. "What would be the point of our `resident' officer going to Hampshire to meet our representatives?"

Discerning the truth in a conflict in which both sides are experts in the art of black propaganda will be difficult. But it is easy to see why the West is suspicious of Moscow. For most of the decade Russia's foreign policy has been steadily pro-Western. Hungry for loans, debt relief, foreign investment, renewed global clout and a means to force the repayment of Soviet era debts, Moscow has pressed consistently for integration into international, Western-run institutions.

Now it has shifted to more ambivalent ground. It has watched unhappily as Nato prepares to march to its borders. It has seen the United States grab a hefty stake in the Caspian, whose vast oil reserves Moscow grew used to covet as its own. Whilst it knows it will long be financially dependent on the West - and cannot truly welcome the prospect of a heavily armed Saddam - it is casting about for a new role.

Central to this process is the figure of Yevgeny Primakov, a fluent Arab speaker whose friendship with Saddam Hussein stretches back three decades. The Western media rarely mentions the Foreign Minister's name without reminding their customers that he is the former head of foreign intelligence.

Yet he is subtler figure than a knee-jerk Cold Warrior. He is a pragmatic geopolitical strategist who is looking for a counterweight to American power and a means of restoring the status of Russian diplomacy. Critics he has aplenty. He is making a "grave mistake", wrote Michael McFaul, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre. "The economic advantages of open trade with Iraq are only a fraction of the potential economic benefits of Western integration."

Mr Primakov is, however, far from master of his destiny. A handful of mighty energy and banking interests stand guard constantly at his shoulder, trying to fuse foreign policy with their interests. Last year Russia struck a multi-billion dollar deal to develop the Qurna oil field in southern Iraq, agreeing not to go ahead until UN sanctions are lifted. Lukoil, the leader of the consortium involved in the contract, is widely considered one of the handful.

Before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Soviet Union had thousands of specialists in Baghdad. It had played a part in the development of 15 Iraqi oil fields. The army used Soviet aircraft and Soviet tanks, having spent some $7bn (pounds 4.3bn) on arms - a bill that is still unpaid. When the Iraq conflict is is settled, expect to see Moscow cashing in its favours.