Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday, in an interview he granted to TF1, a French television channel, that unilateral American-British military action against Iraq would be a "grave mistake" and an "unreasonable use of force". Russia might veto it in the Security Council, he averred.
In a joint declaration with France and Germany, issued the same day, he called to enhance the number of arms inspectors in Iraq as an alternative to war.
Only weeks ago Russia was written off, not least by myself, as a satellite of the United States. This newfound assertiveness has confounded analysts and experts everywhere. Yet, appearances aside, it does not signal a fundamental shift in Russian policy or worldview.
Russia could not resist the temptation of playing once more the Leninist game of "inter-imperialist contradictions". It has long masterfully exploited chinks in NATO's armor to further its own economic, if not geopolitical, goals. Its convenient geographic sprawl - part Europe, part Asia - allows it to pose as both a continental power and a global one with interests akin to those of the United States. Hence the verve with which it delved into the war against terrorism, recasting internal oppression and meddling abroad as its elements.
As Vladimir Lukin, deputy speaker of the Duma observed recently, Britain having swerved too far towards America - Russia may yet become an intermediary between a bitterly disenchanted USA and an irked Europe and between the rich, industrialized West and developing countries in Asia. Publicly, the USA has only mildly disagreed with Russia's reluctance to countenance a military endgame in Iraq - while showering France and Germany with vitriol for saying, essentially, the same things.
The United States knows that Russia will not jeopardize the relevance of the Security Council - one of the few remaining hallmarks of past Soviet grandeur - by vetoing an American-sponsored resolution. But Russia cannot be seen to be abandoning a traditional ally and a major customer (Iraq) and newfound friends (France and Germany) too expediently.
Nor can Putin risk further antagonizing Moscow hardliners who already regard his perceived "Gorbachev-like" obsequiousness and far reaching concessions to the USA as treasonous. The scrapping of the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, the expansion of NATO to Russia's borders, America's presence in central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia's "near abroad" - are traumatic reversals of fortune.
An agreed consultative procedure with the crumbling NATO hardly qualifies as ample compensation. There are troubling rumblings of discontent in the army. A few weeks ago, a Russian general in Chechnya refused Putin's orders publicly - and with impunity. Additionally, according to numerous opinion polls, the vast majority of Russians oppose an Iraqi campaign.
By aligning itself with the fickle France and the brooding and somnolent Germany, Russia is warning the USA that it should not be taken for granted and that there is a price to pay for its allegiance and good services. But Putin is not Boris Yeltsin, his inebriated predecessor who over-played his hand in opposing NATO's operation in Kosovo in 1999 - only to be sidelined, ignored and humiliated in the postwar arrangements.
Russia wants a free hand in Chechnya and to be heard on international issues. It aspires to secure its oil contracts in Iraq - worth tens of billions of dollars - and the repayment of $9 billion in old debts by the postbellum government. It seeks pledges that the oil market will not be flooded by a penurious Iraq. It desires a free hand in Ukraine, Armenia and Uzbekistan, among others. Russia wants to continue to sell $4 billion a year in arms to China, India, Iran, Syria and other pariahs unhindered.
Only the United States, the sole superpower, can guarantee that these demands are met. Moreover, with a major oil producer such as Iraq as a US protectorate, Russia becomes a hostage to American goodwill. Yet, hitherto, all Russia received were expression of sympathy, claimed Valeri Fyodorov, director of Political Friends, an independent Russian think-tank, in an interview in the Canadian daily, National Post.
These are not trivial concerns. Russia's is a primitive economy, based on commodities - especially energy products - and an over-developed weapons industry. Its fortunes fluctuate with the price of oil, of agricultural produce and with the need for arms, driven by regional conflicts.
Should the price of oil collapse, Russia may again be forced to resort to multilateral financing, a virtual monopoly of the long arms of US foreign policy, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The USA also has a decisive voice in the World Trade Organization (WTO), membership thereof being a Russian strategic goal.
It was the United States which sponsored Russia's seat at table of the G8 - the Group of Eight industrialized states - a much coveted reassertion of the Russian Federation's global weight. According to Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a Russian paper, the USA already announced a week ago that it is considering cutting Russia off American financial aid - probably to remind the former empire who is holding the purse strings.
But siding with America risks alienating the all-important core of Europe: Germany and France. Europe - especially Germany - is Russia's largest export destination and foreign investor. Russia is not oblivious to that. It would like to be compensated generously by the United States for assuming such a hazard.
Still, Europe is a captive of geography and history. It has few feasible alternatives to Russian gas, for instance. As the recent $7 billion investment by British Petroleum proves, Russia - and, by extension, central and east Europe - is Europe's growth zone and natural economic hinterland.
Yet, it is America that captures the imagination of Russian oligarchs and lesser businesses.
Russia aims to become the world's largest oil producer within the decade. With this in mind, it is retooling its infrastructure and investing in new pipelines and ports. The United States is aggressively courted by Russian officials and "oiligarchs" - the energy tycoons.
With the Gulf states cast in the role of anti-American Islamic militants, Russia emerges as a sane and safe - i.e., rationally driven by self-interest - alternative supplier and a useful counterweight to an increasingly assertive and federated Europe.
Russia's affinity with the United States runs deeper that the confluence of commercial interests.
Russian capitalism is far more "Anglo-Saxon" than Old Europe's. The Federation has an educated but cheap and abundant labor force, a patchy welfare state, exportable natural endowments, a low tax burden and a pressing need for unhindered inflows of foreign investment.
Russia's only hope of steady economic growth is the expansion of its energy behemoths abroad. Last year it has become a net foreign direct investor. It has a vested interest in globalization and world order which coincide with America's. China, for instance, is as much Russia's potential adversary as it is the United State's.
Russia welcomed the demise of the Taliban and is content with regime changes in Iraq and North Korea - all American exploits. It can - and does - contribute to America's global priorities. Collaboration between the two countries' intelligence services has never been closer. Hence also the thaw in Russia's relations with its erstwhile foe, Israel.
Russia's population is hungry and abrasively materialistic. Its robber barons are more American in spirit than any British or French entrepreneur. Russia's business ethos is reminiscent of 19th century frontier America, not of 20th century staid Germany.
Russia is driven by kaleidoscopically shifting coalitions within a narrow elite, not by its masses - and the elite wants money, a lot of it and now. In Russia's unbreakable cycle, money yields power which leads to more money. The country is a functioning democracy but elections there do not revolve around the economy. Most taxes are evaded by most taxpayers and half the gross national product is anyhow underground. Ordinary people crave law and order - or, at least a semblance thereof.
Hence Putin's rock idol popularity. He caters to the needs of the elite by cozying up to the West and, in particular, to America - even as he provides the lower classes with a sense of direction and security they lacked since 1985. But Putin is a serendipitous president. He enjoys the aftereffects of a sharply devalued, export-enhancing, imports-depressing ruble and the vertiginous tripling of oil prices, Russia's main foreign exchange generator.
The last years of Yeltsin have been so traumatic that the bickering cogs and wheels of Russia's establishment united behind the only vote-getter they could lay their hands on: Putin, an obscure politician and former KGB officer. To a large extent, he proved to be an agreeable puppet, concerned mostly with self-preservation and the imaginary projection of illusory power.
Putin's great asset is his pragmatism and realistic assessment of the shambles that Russia has become and of his own limitations. He has turned himself into a kind of benevolent and enlightened arbiter among feuding interests - and as the merciless and diligent executioner of the decisions of the inner cabals of power.
Hitherto he kept everyone satisfied. But Iraq is his first real test. Everyone demands commitments backed by actions. Both the Europeans and the Americans want him to put his vote at the Security Council where his mouth is. The armed services want him to oppose war in Iraq. The intelligence services are divided. The Moslem population inside Russia - and surrounding it on all sides - is restive and virulently anti-American.
The oil industry is terrified of America' domination of the world's second largest proven reserves - but also craves to do business in the United States. Intellectuals and Russian diplomats worry about America's apparent disregard for the world order spawned by the horrors of World War II. The average Russian regards the Iraqi stalemate as an internal American affair. "It is not our war", is a common refrain, growing commoner.
Putin has played it admirably nimbly. Whether he ultimately succeeds in this impossible act of balancing remains to be seen. The smart money says he would. But if the last three years have taught us anything it is that the smart money is often disastrously wrong.