The 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has spurred reflection on the far-reaching geopolitical fallout of the war. But one facet has gone largely undiscussed: its contribution to deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations that have brought the countries to the brink of war today, as laid out in U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010.
By the end of 2002, the relationship was at an inflection point. Russian president Vladimir Putin had spent significant political capital on an attempt at rapprochement with George W. Bush’s administration. “No Russian leader since Peter the Great has cast his lot as much with the West as Putin has,” observed then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden at the time.
The evidence was there. The Kremlin had closed Soviet-era bases, allowed U.S. forces to invade Afghanistan from Central Asia, and accepted further NATO enlargement and Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Although Putin had “given the United States most everything it could want [...and] made concessions on strategic issues once unthinkable for a Kremlin ruler,” the Washington Post reported, he had “been able to show few tangible benefits to justify his policy to domestic skeptics,” including the lifting of Cold-War era U.S. restrictions on trade with Russia.
This was the context in which Bush began pushing for the invasion. Kremlin officials were reportedly primarily concerned with what a war would mean for Russia’s ability to collect the nearly $8 billion it was owed by Iraq due to its eight-year war with Iran, and the cables corroborate that version of events. “Putin expressed to [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi his concern about the possibility of a U.S. military action in Iraq, noting that Russia wants to be able to collect on Iraq’s heavy bilateral debt,” an April 2002 cable reads. “Putin stressed the need to use the UN to deal with Iraq.” The matter of the $40 billion trade deal with Iraq that Moscow was set to sign, as well as Russian business interests in Iraqi oil fields, also loomed large.
Indeed, Putin at times suggested he might be more flexible on his objections to the use of U.S. military force if it might later serve Russia’s interests. “Putin stressed that if the U.S. and other countries were given a green light to deal with their problem in Iraq, he should have similar acquiescence for dealing with his terrorist problem in Chechnya and Georgia,” one October 2002 cable records Putin as telling Berlusconi. The press had earlier reported on the Kremlin toying with an “Iraq-for-Georgia” tradeoff.
But it’s clear other concerns were also involved. In a later meeting with Berlusconi that came as Bush was pressing for a tougher UN Security Council resolution on weapons inspections — which, according to the UK’s Chilcot Report, was merely a strategy to legitimize an invasion Bush was committed to launching no matter what — Putin “made clear” that “Russia had gone as far as it could go” in the language it could support.
“The Russian president identified two red lines that he could not cross,” states an October 2002 cable. “A UNSC [UN Security Council] resolution that contained an automatic trigger for the use of military force if Iraq failed to meet all of its obligations, and acceptance of unilateral resort to force by the U.S. without ‘international legitimacy’ (i.e. UN sanction).”
Following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 address to the Security Council, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, while calling on Baghdad to fully cooperate with inspectors, stressed the need for a political settlement and emphasized that the situation could only be resolved through international cooperation through the Security Council and in compliance with the UN Charter.
That this should be the case is hardly surprising. Significantly weakened by the Soviet Union’s collapse and the economic shock therapy it underwent in the 1990s, Russia had a direct interest in a global system that relied on multilateralism and international law instead of on the unilateral use of power by the remaining superpower. Kremlin officials had just gotten an unpleasant taste of what that might mean for them with the U.S. bombing — without the Security Council’s authorization — of Serbia, a campaign that led the otherwise ardently pro-Western Boris Yeltsin to protest in outrage and suspend cooperation with NATO (which Putin swiftly reversed a year later).
Whatever the exact mix of motivations, Putin’s government unsuccessfully teamed up with war-skeptical U.S. allies France and Germany to try to prevent the war. From December 2001 until the invasion’s eve, Putin repeatedly warned Bush in public and in private that expanding the war on terror to Iraq would be a mistake and that the “problem” of Iraq should be resolved through the UN and weapons inspections instead of unilateral military force. Putin said he would use his veto power, if necessary, to block any potential UN authorization of force.
Though he briefly wavered under U.S. pressure, what may ultimately have kept Putin in line with European opponents of the war is the Bush administration’s lack of reciprocation to his overtures. Russian trade with Europe dwarfed its trade with the United States, which maintained the restrictions Moscow had sought to end, and Putin had little to point to in convincing a Russian foreign policy establishment that opposed joining the war that a break with powers like Germany and France was worth the benefit of aligning with Washington’s unpopular invasion.
A March 19, 2003, cable outlines an “anticlimactic” end to the Security Council debate on the invasion, its author describing how most members “defensively postured about the relevance and significance of both the Council and, more broadly, the United Nations.”
“We remembered 9/11 and were there for you — but no linkage with Iraq,” was how the cable summarized Ivanov’s speech, which stressed that inspections were working and should continue, that a “comprehensive settlement” must be worked out through the UN, and that “no prior council decisions authorized the use of force outside the UN Charter or approved the violent overthrow of the leadership of a sovereign state.”
Bush’s decision to invade anyway didn’t precipitate an immediate collapse of U.S.-Russia relations. One September 2003 cable describes Putin’s consideration of deploying Russian troops to Iraq under U.S. command as an example of his still “pro-Western” views, while another cable sent a month later documents then-State Department official John Bolton’s belief that “that the U.S. and Russia had overcome pre-war disagreements.”
But numerous cables point to the bitter taste the episode left for the Russian side. “While 9/11 precipitated unparalleled cooperation, Iraq and other events had eroded this relationship,” Russian Security Council Secretary Ivanov told U.S. Ambassador to Russia (and current CIA director) William Burns in 2006. “The Germans did not hear much that was new from the Russians during the talks [in Siberia over Iran],” Burns was told later that year. “Moscow's position was still shaped largely by its ‘Iraq experience,’ with Russia fearing that action in the UN Security Council would create a slippery slope leading to the use of force.”
As late as 2009, a roundtable of Russian analysts emphasized to a congressional delegation their “deep displeasure” with the U.S. government and noted “that the war in Iraq played a large part in souring Putin on wanting to be a ‘member of the club’ of forward-leaning countries by demonstrating that if a country had enough power it could do what it wanted and ignore international opinion.”
U.S. officials were told Russian resentment over the war went far beyond Kremlin hardliners. “Anti-American sentiment is growing in Russia and U.S. moral authority, which is a key component of the relationship, is slipping,” former Yeltsin official Anatoly Chubais warned in 2006. “Those who criticize the U.S. argue that rhetoric on democracy building and actions in Iraq do not coincide. These arguments are resonating with the population and could bring U.S. critics to power.”
Grigory Yavlinsky, chairman of the liberal opposition Yabloko party, bitterly admonished U.S. officials interested in encouraging democracy in Russia to “‘leave Russia alone’ and, alluding to Iraq and Abu Ghraib, ‘put its own house in order,’” according to a February 2007 cable. “For nationalists, he said, the U.S. was a hostile force; for liberals, it was discredited due to Iraq, Kosovo, and NATO,” a 2008 cable recounts Kremlin adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov as saying, echoing liberal Putin critic Boris Nemtsov’s verdict on U.S. democracy promotion: that “Russians don't welcome U.S. commentary, against the backdrop of an unpopular war in Iraq” and a host of other issues.
Yet the cables also hold lessons for Russian officials today, as they remain mired in their own illegal war that is — from unilateral force to faulty intelligence — remarkably similar to Bush’s. “No modern problem can have a military solution,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who still holds the post today, told his French counterpart in 2007 in response to saber-rattling over Iran. Putin’s own words to the Russian Federal Assembly, recorded in a May 2006 cable, are even more prophetic: “It is known that the use of force rarely brings the hoped-for results, and its consequences at times are more terrible than the original threat.”
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer with Jacobin magazine and the author of Yesterday's Man: the Case Against Joe Biden. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, In These Times, and others.
President George W. Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin speak to the press after their summit in the Slovak capital, Bratislava on February 24, 2005 in Bratislava, Slovakia (Northfoto/Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.