From Iraq to Ukraine: A New Perspective on the Russian-Western Confrontation

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In December 1998, Bill Clinton called Boris Yeltsin, pleading: “The relationship between the United States and Russia that you and I have worked so hard to build is far too important and, to my mind, far too sound, to be subverted by Saddam Hussein.” To Clinton’s dismay, Yeltsin answered that indeed, “what is at stake is not just the person of Saddam Hussein but our relations with the U.S.” As I have discussed elsewhere, this was but one of many tense exchanges between American and Russian officials over Iraq during the 1990s. Such quarrels between the two former Cold War rivals irrevocably damaged their relationship in the post-Cold War period, but they have been largely overlooked by history, even in the memoirs and post-hoc analyses of officials who participated in those events. Nevertheless, these disputes are worth reexamining today as they provide critical insight into what drives the deep animosity between Moscow and Washington.

The war in Ukraine has reignited decades-old debates about what went wrong in the post-Cold War Russian-American relationship. On one side of this debate, politicians and pundits ranging from Bernie Sanders on the left to Tucker Carlson on the right as well as realist international relations scholars have blamed American and Western policies in Eastern Europe for the breakdown in Russian-American relations. “Hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism” led to NATO expansion into Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence, which was a clear threat to the Russian homeland. Moscow’s policies in places like Ukraine, this argument goes, is a regrettable but predicted response to this provocation.



Of course, others have countered that such arguments are “inconsistent,” and that conflicts between Russia and the West in Eastern Europe stem from Russian pathologies and Moscow’s paranoia rather than Western liberalism. Yet, even these critiques have focused on Eastern Europe.

The Eurocentric fixation of the discussion has blinkered all sides to the global nature of the American disagreements with Russia since the 1990s. After all, in addition to Ukraine, Russia also intervened militarily in Syria and, less prominently, in Libya. Likewise, bringing Iraq into the conversation expands the discussion about Russian foreign policy. Doing so belies the notion that delusional American commitments to liberalism and the threatening nature of NATO forces butting up against the Russian border drove post-Cold War history.

Russian disagreements with the United States were just as intense in Iraq, which is nowhere near the Russian border. American actions there were certainly not a threat to the regime in Moscow. Rather, focusing on Iraq suggests that Russia’s main problem in its post-Cold War relations with the West has been its own weakness, which thwarted Moscow’s attempts to shape international politics as it had during the Cold War.

Iraq played as important a role in the breakdown in Russian-American relations in the 1990s as anything that occurred in Europe. Moscow went along with Washington in the Gulf Crisis of 1990 because it was powerless to stop it. As a British diplomat privately quipped in the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, “it doesn’t make any difference what the Soviet analysts may think since the person determining Soviet policy in the Middle East these days is [U.S. Secretary of State] James Baker.” Although the Soviet Union supported the United States in the Gulf War, the Iraqi military was armed with Soviet weapons. Moscow watched with embarrassment as its military hardware proved impotent in the face of a high-tech Western onslaught in Iraq.

Following the war, the Russians tacitly supported a humanitarian intervention in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, but behind closed doors they expressed some reservations to Bush about encroachments on Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Internal Iraqi archives reveal that Iraqi diplomats struggled to maintain influence in Moscow in 1991 and early 1992. However, by courting the Russian opposition they were able to transform American policies toward Iraq into a wedge issue in Moscow. By the end of 1992, the Iraqis forced a change of policy. Despite the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government increasingly fell into old patterns of treating Iraq as a client state in the fight against American hegemony.

When Iraq moved surface-to-air missiles into a no-fly-zone in January 1993, the Americans, British, and French launched airstrikes against Saddam’s regime. As declassified American intelligence reports show, these air strikes “caught Russia … by surprise.” Moscow believed it was “not adequately consulted” and it began to question “Western attempts to manage UN-authorized military actions independently.” These reservations about American unilateralism in Iraq bled into suspicions about American actions in the Balkans later in 1993. American intelligence reports suggested that Russia was taking a harder line in the Balkans “because of domestic reactions to the latest [American-led] military actions against Iraq.” Yeltsin began pairing the two issues, accusing “the US of dictating to the international community on Iraq and Yugoslavia.”

By the end of 1993, internal Iraqi files show that the regime in Baghdad could count on the support of every major political party in Russia — from the Christian Democrats to the Communists to the Liberal Democrats and everyone in between. In their meetings with Iraqis, they all “agreed repeatedly” to aid the Iraqi regime and many of them visited Iraq to show their support. Moscow hesitated to break publicly with Washington, but by the fall of 1994 it clearly opposed American-backed sanctions.

Iraq owed Russia large sums of money, and the regime in Baghdad enticed Moscow further by offering lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts to Russian firms. Thus, Moscow had considerable economic interests in backing Iraq.

However, Russian condemnations of American policies were most severe when the United States failed to live up to the liberal principles that it claimed to support. The George H.W. Bush administration had sold the Gulf War and sanctions on Iraq as a means to launch a “new world order” in which “the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.” The Clinton administration adopted similar rhetoric. Yet, while the United Nations never authorized regime change in Iraq, both the Bush and Clinton administrations made it increasingly clear that they would settle for nothing less than that. Such hypocrisy inflamed the Russian-American relationship. As Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev argued in 1994, if Iraq adhered to U.N. resolutions, the United States and the U.N. Security Council “must be ready to take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” The Russians were not liberals. They certainty were not immune to hypocrisy and cynicism. In Iraq, they were supporting one of the late 20th century’s most brutal dictators — someone who launched two wars against his neighbors and gassed his own people. However, in this instance, it was not America’s imposition of liberal concepts like a rules-based system or international law, but rather the flouting of them which sparked Russian ire.

Disagreements over Iraq increasingly inflamed tensions between Moscow and Washington as the decade progressed. In 1996, Baghdad sent the Iraqi Army into the autonomous region of northern Iraq to intervene in a Kurdish civil war. In response, the United States and Britain launched cruise missiles at Iraq without a Security Council resolution. Russia described the attack as “inappropriate and unacceptable.” Its foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, condemned the United States, arguing that Washington felt there was “only one superpower in the world that could dictate its terms to others.”

Then, in 1997 and 1998, Iraq provoked a series of crises when it restricted U.N. weapons inspections. In August 1998, Baghdad suspended inspections until the teams were reconfigured with fewer “Anglo-Saxons.” The Russians could not defend Iraq in the face of such a blatant violation of a U.N. resolution and they remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the fall. However, as it became clear that Washington and London were moving toward another military campaign in Iraq without a new U.N. Security Council resolution, Clinton’s relationship with Yeltsin worsened.

Yeltsin recognized that Iraqi actions were problematic, but in private, he implored Clinton not to “overdramatize the situation.” In December 1998, as military strikes became imminent, the relationship hit rock bottom. Internal American assessments argued that Yeltsin was under immense domestic pressure and that Russian Foreign Minister Primakov was acting “very emotionally.” On December 18th, Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for the first time since World War II. It did so not because of NATO expansion or Western intervention in the Balkans, but because of Iraq.

In the following days, the exchange that opened this article occurred. Yeltsin made clear that what was “at stake” in the crisis over Iraq was not just the fate of the regime in Baghdad, but the entirety of Russian-American relations. However, none of the Russian protests and threats in the 1990s, including this one, had any influence on American policies. In the following years, the Russian-American relationship deteriorated further, hitting another low point against the backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, again without clear authorization from the U.N. Security Council.

Highlighting the role of Iraq in the breakdown in Russian-American relations during the 1990s does not negate the importance of NATO expansion or Balkan interventions. However, it does challenge some of the assumptions that stem from a Eurocentric analysis. Pundits and analysts who blame the West for the breakdown in Russian-American relations often point to Western policies in Russia’s near abroad. Yet, expanding the scope to include Iraq suggests that threats to the Russian homeland did not necessarily drive Russian policies. By extension, a few Western policy shifts in Eastern Europe would not have changed the course of history.

Neither was American liberalism necessarily at the heart of the dispute. Russia’s fury with American policies in Iraq were most acute when Washington’s propensity for unilateralism led it to defy liberal principles such as commitment to a rules-based system and international law.

That type of unilateralism was at the heart of Moscow’s disagreement with the United States both in Iraq and in the post-Cold War world more generally. After winning the Cold War, the United States dominated the post-Cold War order. Moscow did not like how decisions were being made, or who was making them. As the case of Iraq shows, the Russians could complain and protest, yet they were not powerful enough to shape events in the manner that they saw fit. In the end, Moscow’s dissatisfaction with its own weakness was and remains a much more fundamental issue than NATO expansion. But addressing it would require more than simply changing a few American policies in Eastern Europe.



Samuel Helfont is an assistant professor of strategy and policy in the Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author of Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018). His next book, Iraq against the World: Saddam, America, and the Post-Cold War Order, is currently undergoing peer review.

Image: Department of Defense