Possibly irked by persistent American U-2 aerial spy missions above its fringes, Russia fired yesterday, from a mobile launcher, a "Topol" RS-12M Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). On Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev, offered Iraq aid in the form of wheat.
The Russian Grain Union, the industry lobby group, claims to have already provided the besieged country with half a million tons of grain under the oil-for-food program.
Russia linked with Syria in declining to approve the new oil-for-food draft resolution as long as it implied a regime change in Iraq. The Duma - having failed to ratify a key nuclear treaty with the USA - called to increase defense spending by at least 3.5 percent of gross domestic product, or about $4 billion this year.
Only 28 percent of Russians polled now view the United States favorably, compared with 68 percent a mere few months ago. A majority of 55 percent disapprove of the USA in a country that was, until very recently, by far the most pro-American in Europe. A Russian telecom, Excom, is offering unlimited free phone calls to the White House to protest U.S. "aggression".
Washington, on its part, has accused the Russian firm, Aviaconversiya, of helping Iraqi forces to jam global positioning system (GPS) signals. Other firms - including anti-tank Kornet missile manufacturer, KBP Tula - have also been fingered for supplying Iraq with sensitive military technologies.
These allegations were vehemently denied by President Vladimir Putin in a phone call to Bush - and ridiculed by the companies ostensibly involved. Russia exported c. $5 billion of military hardware and another $2.6 billion in nuclear equipment and expertise last year, mostly to India and China - triple the 1994 figure.
Russia and the United States have continually exchanged barbs over the sale of fission technology to Iran. In retaliation, Atomic Energy Minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, exposed an Anglo-German-Dutch deal with the Iranians, which, he said, included the sale of uranium enrichment centrifuges.
Is Putin reviving the Cold War to regain his nationalist credentials, tarnished by the positioning, unopposed, of American troops in central Asia, the unilateral American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and the expansion of NATO and the European Union to Russia's borders?
Or, dependent as it is on energy exports, is Russia opposed to the war because it fears an American monopoly on the second largest known reserves of crude? Russia announced on Thursday that it would insist on honoring all prewar contracts signed between Iraq and Russian oil companies and worth of billions of dollars - and on the repayment of $8-9 billion in Iraqi overdue debt to Russia.
According to Rosbalt, every drop of $1 in oil prices translates into annual losses to the Russian treasury of $2 billion. Aggregate corporate profits rose in January by one fifth year on year, mostly on the strength of surging crude quotes. The Economist Intelligence Unit expects this year's GDP to grow by 3.8 percent. Foreign exchange reserves are stable at $54 billion.
The threat to Russia's prominence and market share is not imminent. Iraqi oil is unlikely to hit world markets in the next few years, as Iraq's dilapidated and outdated infrastructure is rebuilt.
Moreover, Russian oil is cheap compared to the North Sea or Alaskan varieties and thus constitutes an attractive investment opportunity as the recent takeover of Tyumen Oil by British Petroleum proves. Still, the long-term risk of being unseated by a reconstructed Iraq as the second largest oil producer in the world is tangible.
Russia has spent the last six months enhancing old alliances and constructing new bridges. According to Interfax, the Russian news agency, yesterday, Russia has made yet another payment of $27 million to the International Monetary Fund. The Russian and Romanian prime ministers met and signed bilateral agreements for the first time since 1989. This week, after 12 years of abortive contacts, the republics of the former Yugoslavia agreed with the Russian Federation on a framework for settling its $600 million in clearing debts.
Recent spats notwithstanding, the Anglo-Saxon alliance still regards Russia as a strategically crucial ally. Last week, British police, in a sudden display of unaccustomed efficacy, nabbed Russian oligarch and mortal Putin-foe, Boris Berezovsky, charged by the Kremlin with defrauding the Samara region of $13 million while he was director of LogoVaz in 1994-5.
The Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, did not remain oblivious to these overtures. Russia and the USA remain partners, he asserted. RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency, quoted him as saying: "If we settle the Iraqi problem by political means and in an accord, the road will open to teamwork on other, no less involved problems."
As Robert Kagan correctly observes in his essay "Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order", the weaker a polity is militarily, the stricter its adherence to international law, the only protection, however feeble, from bullying. Putin, presiding over a decrepit and bloated army, naturally insists that the world must be governed by international regulation and not by the "rule of the fist".
But Kagan - and Putin - get it backwards as far as the European Union is concerned. Its members are not compelled to uphold international prescripts by their indisputable and overwhelming martial deficiency. Rather, after centuries of futile bloodletting, they choose not to resort to weapons and, instead, to settle their differences juridically.
Thus, Putin is not a European in the full sense of the word. He supports an international framework of dispute settlement because he has no armed choice, not because it tallies with his deeply held convictions and values. According to Kagan, Putin is, in essence, an American: he believes that the world order ultimately rests on military power and the ability to project it.
Russia aspires to be America, not France. Its business ethos, grasp of realpolitik, nuclear arsenal and evolving values place it firmly in the Anglo-Saxon camp. Its dalliance with France and Germany is hardly an elopement. Had Russia been courted more aggressively by Secretary of State, Colin Powell and its concerns shown more respect by the American administration, it would have tilted differently. It is a lesson to be memorized in Washington.