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Confronting Iraq: Russia
With Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, March 20, 2003; 10 a.m. ET

What is the mood in Russia toward the U.S.-led conflict in Iraq? How are Russia's 20 million Muslims affecting the political landscape in the country? How is President Putin reacting to the Iraq crisis?

Washington Post foreign correspondent Sharon LaFraniere was online live from Moscow to discuss the mood in Russia.

A Transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

New York, N.Y.: Do Russian citizens expect an increase in terrorist acts? What precautions are being offered to Russians by the government?

Sharon LaFraniere: I don't know if they expect it, but they certainly fear it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that a U.S. attack on Iraq could incite terrorists. Many Russian leaders say Russians live in a more dangerous neighborhood that Americans, with a porous border, close to countries where terrorist groups have strong footholds. It is not clear whether the government is taking specific steps now to protect its citizens after last night's strikes. We only know Putin has been meeting with his advisors to discuss security.

London, UK: Do you expect Russia to sit this conflict out on the side-lines, publicly chastising the U.S. for the war, while privately assuring President Bush that Moscow will not intervene?

Sharon LaFraniere: That's certainly what both U.S. officials and Russian analysts have been predicting. Putin today said Bush had made "a big political mistake" and that "nothing can justify this military action." But at the same time his foreign minister said that despite the war, the U.S. and Russia must remain partners.

There is no sign that Russia has any intention or desire to get involved in this conflict. But Putin is under pressure to do everything diplomatically he can to try to end it as fast as possible. Today, for instance, the lower house of the Russian parliament called upon him to try to convene a special session of the U.N. Security Council to challenge the U.S. attacks.

Stafford, Va.: How do Russians feel about the War?

Sharon LaFraniere: They are overwhelmingly against it, by a margin of almost nine to one.

Baltimore, Md.: Considering Russia's history with Stalin, why does Russia not actively support the liberation of the Iraqi people from a neo-Stalinist regime?

What are the financial dealings between Russia and the Hussein government?

Sharon LaFraniere: I don't think Russians compare Saddam Hussein with Stalin. The polls show half of Russians think Iraq is friendly toward Russia. But that doesn't mean the Russian government wants Saddam Hussein to stay in power. Although the Kremlin denied it publicly, U.S. officials sent two envoys to Baghdad to try to convince him to accept exile.

Iraq owes Russia about $8 billion in debt, which hasn't been paying. Russia sells about $1 billion in goods a year to Iraq. Russian companies have also invested heavily in Iraqi oil fields. Although Iraq cancelled the most lucrative contract, other valuable deals are still pending.

Warren, Vt.: Are there any indications that the war on Iraq will lead to increased activity by Russian troops in Chechnya, and will this have any impact on the impending referendum there?

Sharon LaFraniere: The referendum is still on for Sunday, and Putin is pushing it very hard, promising to give Chechnya broad autonomy if Chechens vote for the referendum.

There is no indication yet that the war will lead to increased military action in Chechnya. There are media reports that some foreign mercenaries have left Chechnya in recent days, maybe to help out Islamic fighters in other countries.

Rahway, N.J.: Good morning. Do you believe that the Russian government's position has been strongly influenced by a need to placate the country's Muslim population; and if so, to what extent?

Sharon LaFraniere: Of Russia's 148 million citizens, 20 million of them are Muslim. Putin has told Muslim leaders that he shares their concerns about an attack on Iraq. It's obviously a real political concern. Russia has had 80,000 troops tied down in the Muslim republic of Chechnya for three and a half years in a very bloody conflict. Analysts here say Putin is not eager to upset the Muslim population further, especially with presidential elections a year away.

Miami, Fla.: When all is said and done, isn't the Russian stance on the Iraq War just cheap posturing designed to ingratiate themselves with the EU?

Sharon LaFraniere: I don't think so. Many foreign policy analysts say that Russia gains much more strategically from its ties to the U.S. than it does from ties to Europe. The EU is Russia's major trading partner. But Russia considers itself America's partner in the war against terrorism and shares with it strategic interests in the Middle East and other parts of the globe. Putin seems to see Washington as the quickest, easiest way for Russia to break out of its relative isolation and integrate itself with the West politically and economically. Many people here would tell you that Putin tries to side with Bush as often as he can, but that this time it was just too risky for him, especially given the overwhelming opposition to war here.

Metairie, La.: Though Putin is denouncing the war, is there a private sense among officials there that this situation won't turn into a permanent rift between the two countries?

Sharon LaFraniere: Yes. Although earlier U.S. officials were threatening "consequences," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said earlier this week that U.S.-Russian relations would not suffer even short-term damage from the split over Iraq. So far, U.S-Russian relations have been surviving this crisis much better than U.S-French relations. The Bush administration has been directing its anger at French President Jacques Chirac, who led the opposition.

Frazeysburg, Ohio: Would Russia consider joining the coalition against Iraq if chemical weapons were used?

Sharon LaFraniere: Russia has said very firmly that it opposes this war. It's hard to see any way that it would utterly reverse that stance and join the coalition, chemical weapons or no chemical weapons.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is there any real likelihood that Russian military forces will arrive unannounced in Iraq to protect their interests and screw things up in the same nutty way they did during the NATO intervention in Kosovo? After all, some nations just can't let things alone once their empire has marched into history. And the absolute last thing the Allies need is another army singing from a different songbook amidst the chaos, clutter, collapse, and construction of a New Iraq. But what a great news story if it comes about, eh? Thanks much.

Sharon LaFraniere: I don't think there is any likelihood of that. Vladimir Putin is not Boris Yeltsin. He doesn't seem to go for surprises and he is more firmly in control of his government than Yeltsin was. He is generally seen as a pragmatist, whose actions are much more predictable than Yeltsin's. An act like that would very much out of character for him, just for starters.

Kansas City, Mo.: Is the beginning of the war effecting U.S. sponsored firms in Russia?

Sharon LaFraniere: So far, no. There was the first little hint of that might develop today. A group of youths in the city of Vladivostok, in the Far East, handed out bottles of Russian mineral water on the street and urged passersby not to drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi because the revenue would finance the war.

Washington, D.C.: Yevgeny Primakov is regularly 'credited' with having built the Soviet-Iraq alliance which formally began in '72 and extended till '90.

Is he, or any of his protégés, at all presently involved in Russian foreign policy in Iraq and/or the region?

Sharon LaFraniere: Primakov went to Baghdad about a month ago. Some U.S. officials said his mission was to convince Saddam Hussein to accept exile, although the Russian government denied it. Whatever he was up to, he didn't succeed, by all accounts.

Brooklyn, N.Y.: For a while it seemed like Russians were greatly admiring of the United States and mostly comfortable with our position and influence in the world. Has Bush's bungled diplomacy eroded that? In other words, what is the average Russian's current view of the U.S. in general and has it changed in recent days?

Sharon LaFraniere: The polls show the image of the U.S. in Russia has fallen over the past year. According to one recent survey, now 53 percent of Russians had a positive attitude toward the U.S. -- still better than half. I haven't seen polls over the last few days but it's very hard to find a Russian on the streets here who thinks the U.S. is on the right path. A lot of people say they are shocked at the behavior of the U.S.

Lucama, N.C.: How can President Putin state that Iraq was cooperating with UN inspectors when they have failed to comply with them since the last Gulf War?

Sharon LaFraniere: Putin insists that the inspectors were making significant progress and needed time and support. Russia doesn't even concede -- publicly at least -- that Iraq actually has weapons of mass destruction. In any case, Putin contends, the U.S. should be dealing with Iraq through the United Nations. For a relatively weak country like Russia, the United Nations is the only way it can have influence on the world stage.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company