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Published: Sunday, 2/23/2003

Veto in U.N. may imperil Russian oil interests

A moment of truth is coming for U.S.-Russian relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that Russia might veto an explicit U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing war on Iraq should the United States or Britain propose one.

Let us see what will happen if Russia uses its veto power in the Security Council.

Saddam Hussein refuses to fully cooperate with U.N. inspectors. The Bush administration is committed to remove him from power. The United States most likely will go ahead with its planned invasion anyway.

Reluctant NATO allies - Belgium, Germany, and France - will eventually accept the inevitable. So will China, which stands to lose too much economically should it antagonize the world's only remaining superpower and a major marketplace for its goods.

So Russia's veto may spell the end of the United Nations. The United Nations will appear irrelevant should the United States ignore it and attack Iraq anyway. And if there's no United Nations, Russia loses its prestigious seat on the U.N. Security Council, and the veto power that goes with it.

Mr. Putin and his sidekicks must be feeling pretty important, giving the United States a minor headache and playing to anti-American sentiments in the largely chauvinistic State Duma.

Some of the less refined Russian lawmakers gloated over a recent NATO split on defensive military aid to Turkey, a NATO member that borders Iraq. NATO finally resolved its crisis, with Belgium and Germany removing its opposition and France, which is not a member of NATO's military council, not attending.

Get a clue, Russia. Whatever prewar disagreements NATO members are having among themselves right now, it is pretty obvious they will not oppose Big Brother when push comes to shove.

So Russia's behavior appears unreasonable. Its dreams are no longer plausible.

Russian oil and nuclear industries, as well as its weapons exporters, are hoping that the Saddam regime survives, that the U.N. sanctions are lifted, and that the huge Russian trade with Iraq can resume.

Sweet dreams, indeed!

Russia's prospects are quite different. If it continues to be a spoilsport in the eyes of the Bush administration, Russia may find itself without access to economic development of post-war Iraq, particularly its oil fields, the world's second largest.

That is what happened in Kosovo after the NATO bombing campaign there a few years ago. History tends to repeat itself.

But it is unlikely that Mr. Putin is that clueless.

Putin's pronouncement only makes sense if it's intended to put immediate pressure on the United States to protect Russia's interests in Iraq.

A high-level parliamentary envoy leaves Moscow today to deliver its Santa wish list to Washington. We may have a rough idea of what's on it from an interview he gave the Echo Moskvy radio.

“Russia's interest in Iraq is first of all economic,” Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house, said in Russian.

“The Iraqi [$8 billion] debt to Russia should be returned in any scenario. The interests of all our companies that incurred losses in Iraq ... should be protected.”

The list goes on: “... Iraq should be the source of the same [amount of] oil delivered to the world market so that there is no dumping and no undermining the world energy market.”

In other words, Russia does not want the United States to take over the Iraqi oilfields and increase oil production, bringing down oil prices. That's because a drop in oil prices would hurt Russia, the world's second largest oil exporter.

So Russia's opposition to war in Iraq is all about money. It can be either ignored or addressed. The latter would be better for U.S.-Russian relations and the world's stability.



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