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Due West: Scarlet Skies Over Baghdad

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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A few of weeks ago at a dinner party in one of the Western embassies in Moscow I had a very interesting conversation with the ambassador of an important Arab country...

A few of weeks ago at a dinner party in one of the Western embassies in Moscow I had a very interesting conversation with the ambassador of an important Arab country. The conversation turned to the “Arab Spring” and especially Russia's stance on Syria. When I asked my neighbor why does he think the Kremlin is so staunch in its defense of Bashar al-Assad's regime, I got a somewhat undiplomatic reply.

“Russian politicians and diplomats are years behind in their understanding of what is happening in the Middle East. I do not understand why exactly but their view of the region is plainly obsolete,” said the ambassador.

“I am afraid this is true not only for the Middle East but most other places too, including even our closest neighbors - the former Soviet republics,” I replied. Still I cannot find the right explanation as to why this is so.

Last week, I moved a step or two towards the answer. I had the honor of attending a moving ceremony in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs palatial “House of Receptions.” It was an unusual book launch. Scarlet Skies Over Baghdad is a memoir based on notes written by late Viktor Posuvalyuk, Deputy Foreign Minister and President Boris Yeltsin's special representative to the Middle East in the second half of the 1990s. Posuvalyuk himself whom I knew personally since my student days, was a self-made man who rose from the humble background of a rural Cossack family to become Russia's great Arab specialist and a consummate diplomat. He was one of only five foreign mission heads left behind in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, after supervising the evacuations of more than 8,000 Soviet civil and military advisors and their family members from Iraq. In a moving tribute to Posuvalyuk, who died in 1999 at the early age of 59, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas all spoke of Viktor Viktorovich’s sharp diplomatic sense, love of the Middle East and Arabic language (which he spoke like a native in several dialects) and his perceptive mind.

However the biggest surprise awaited me when I opened the book. I expected to find it to be a faithful reflection of the party line, first the late Soviet one under Gorbachev, then the fluctuating Russian one under Yeltsin. What I found was sometimes passionate, sometimes businesslike, sometimes ironic and sometimes angry accounts of the dramatic events that shaped the Middle East.

Mr. Posuvalyuk’s evident dislike of Saddam Hussein, whom he clearly held for who he was – a bloodthirsty tyrant – paradoxically helped him keep a cool head and analyze the situation realistically as he never allowed himself to be fooled by the “Butcher of Baghdad.” This did not mean that he always agreed with the US positions or attitudes but it is also clear that Mr. Posuvalyuk did not stick to the blind anti-Americanism of many of his colleagues, and what’s more important, recognized not only the real politik dimension of the American position but the moral one, too.

Despite his rock-solid loyalty to the state he served, the late deputy minister always had a personal opinion of events and people and felt that he had the duty to be frank and sincere about them, even if this meant telling his superiors things they did not expect or like to hear. Mr. Posuvalyuk was no simpleton and knew his way in the murky world of diplomacy and office politics but he never shied away from putting his head on the block if he felt this would help promote Russia’s interest, especially in the 1990s. In a profession that is supposed to be the epitome of cynicism he managed to keep his moral bearings – and paradoxically this made him more successful in deal making. At second thought this was no paradox at all. Humans are complex creatures and are motivated by a variety of reasons from the most basic to the most idealistic.

This understanding is what sorely lacks in Russian foreign policy today. I have written before about the Russian leadership’s dislike of “values-based policy.” Wounded by the experience of the unrequited “romance with the West” in the early 1990s, it decided to move to a bare and undisguised pursuit of interests, meaning all too frequently interests of the few at the top of the Russian state pyramid. This, in countless places from Kiev to Cairo and from Bishkek to Belgrade, lead to the creation of a kind of foreign policy “comfort zone.” Within this zone it was enough to speak to the strongman in power and his cronies, make anti-American statements and promote Russian gas and Russian weapons. And every time a former strongman turned out to be a weak politician on the run for his life, it was explained away by the influence of the perfidious West and its agents. And the same attitude adopted vis-à-vis the next ally. Opposition politicians, NGOs, and regular people from the street never entered Russian foreign policy calculations. And every time it was them who in fact upset these calculations. Only last year we witnessed this in Egypt and Libya. We will probably see this in Syria this year. It will eventually happen to other Moscow “friends”: Alexander Lukashenko, Hugo Chavez, Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev… The late greatViktor Posuvalyuk’s advice to the Kremlin these days would have probably been simple and yet unfortunately so difficult to put into practice: “Switch on your moral compass but keep your head cool!”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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