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The Gulf War: Moscow's role

Saddam Hussein
Supporters of Saddam Hussein parade a picture of the Iraqi leader  

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- The Gulf War of 1991 had ramifications far beyond the Middle East.

One of the most significant of these involved the role of the Soviet Union, which was in decline as a world superpower.

The U.S.S.R. had long been a close ally of Baghdad. It had a treaty of friendship and co-operation with Saddam Hussein's regime, and for two decades it had trained the Iraqi military, supplying it with billions of dollars worth of weaponry and equipment.

When the chips were down, Moscow could have sided with Iraq against the U.S.-led alliance -- albeit risking a dangerous return to the Cold War.

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Instead, the Soviet Union of January 1991 -- economically weakened and politically unstable -- adopted the role of middleman, condemning Baghdad's aggression against Kuwait while working feverishly to avert allied military action against Iraq.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev put forward a six-point peace plan, and his special envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, a personal friend of Saddam Hussein for 20 years, shuttled between Moscow and the Gulf trying to implement it.

"We were telling Saddam, you should not be mistaken, there will be a real use of force, and that (it) will be a very strong use of (a) very strong force," says former Soviet foreign minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.

Despite Gorbachev's efforts to broker a peace, Soviet diplomacy came to naught. Iraq refused to back down -- convinced, says Bessmertnykh, that things would not go beyond sabre-rattling -- and the allies went to war.

"A lot of people sitting in Moscow would say ... this was the first time that the United States started to act as a global policeman, that there was no counterweight to the great might of the United States," says Dmitri Trenin, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

Continued influence

Since then, Russia has endeavoured to maintain a level of influence in the region.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia engaged in shuttle diplomacy to try to lift allied sanctions against Iraq. And it occasionally acted as an intermediary between Iraq and the West, helping to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions on Kuwait and Iraqi disarmament.

Today, Russia still has a stake in Iraq: Baghdad owes it $8 billion, and Russian oil companies are eager to be one step ahead of their European competitors once sanctions are lifted.

"Russia does not want to lose whatever position it has in Iraq. At the same time, it is not prepared to spoil the relations with the United States, Great Britain and other Western countries because of Iraq," says political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov. During the last decade, Russia never burned its bridges with Iraq. Now it hopes to exploit its past friendship with Baghdad to forge a new, pragmatic economic relationship.

The Unfinished War: A Decade since Desert Storm
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Tenth anniversary of the Gulf War: A look back
January 16, 2001

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