The war in the Persian Gulf posed a major and untimely crisis for Soviet foreign policy. The drama and pace of Operation Desert Storm tended to distract American attention from the spectacle of Moscow's own confused, shifting, contentious and contradictory approaches to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the American response. At several points in the crisis it was uncertain just how firmly Moscow's principles of "new thinking" in foreign policy would hold. In the end Moscow did indeed sustain its general commitment to all U.N. resolutions on Iraq, but only with a process that proved deeply unsettling within the Soviet Union. This process afforded the world an unprecedented window on the making of Soviet foreign policy in the Gorbachev era. It provided the best understanding yet of the extraordinarily complex factors currently competing for a voice in Moscow's foreign policy. While Soviet new thinking has been much seasoned since its inception, it is still evolving.

For Moscow the Gulf War involved far more than its policy toward Iraq. The crisis embraced a broad range of Soviet interests, in both the West and the Third World, and in military and civilian spheres. Coming as it did at a time of immense turmoil in Soviet politics, the crisis inevitably became the currency of a domestic power struggle as well. Above all, the Gulf War emerged as the single most formative crisis to date in the gradual reformulation of the principles and interests of Soviet foreign policy. While the liberation of eastern Europe and the unification of Germany may have been of greater geopolitical importance, those events occurred when Gorbachev was both more popular and more firmly in control and-almost before the country realized it-had become faits accomplis. Now, in the wake of the Gulf War, both the Soviets and their observers know more about how Soviet interests are new thinking. He once again propounded a willingness to cooperate with Washington and the United Nations in support of newly found common interests, in stark counterpoise to traditional Soviet postures in the Third World. Shevardnadze's departure was one more important trophy for right-wing forces seeking to eliminate those responsible for the hemorrhage of traditional Soviet interests abroad and the loss of party power at home.

The right was not without tactical allies as well. Traditional orientalists such as Yevgeni Primakov, personal advisor to Gorbachev, and Alexander Dzasokhov, Politburo member and former ambassador to Syria, as well as other specialists with long-standing ties to the Arab world, also found Shevardnadze's policies threatening to their own positions and interests. Soviet Muslims were unhappy with the situation. Even many liberals grew uncomfortable with the destruction visited upon Iraq. For many it was not so much a matter of ideology, but of a deeply ingrained foreign policy orientation toward the Third World, now dramatically abandoned for uncertain benefits.

Apart from the substantive issues intrinsic to the gulf crisis, Gorbachev's increasing weakness compelled him to weave tactically to accommodate conflicting pressures. Perestroika basically committed him to seek common interests with the West. Gorbachev thus seemed unwilling to break with Washington or to defy U.N. resolutions. But, desperate for success in deteriorating domestic circumstances, he also hoped to attain dramatic diplomatic gains as mediator in the gulf. Under pressure from the right to dissociate the Soviet Union from distasteful American policies, and to enhance his flagging position internationally and at home, Gorbachev sought repeatedly to weaken the thrust of American war tactics and bring an early end to the fighting. He was even willing to risk compromising the settlement terms specified by the Security Council itself. Moreover the allied ground offensive against Iraq coincided with the second stage of the Baltic crisis in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev came under Western pressure to curtail the use of force against those independence-minded nationalist regimes. Torn by these conflicting interests, goals and needs, he ended up bereft of any coherent approach to the gulf crisis or of a single foreign policy voice. It may well be that the speed and decisiveness of the U.S. endgame on the battlefield spared Moscow from a more bruising and perhaps damaging internal split or from a clear break with the anti-Iraqi alliance abroad.

It was indeed fortuitous that Secretary of State James Baker happened to be traveling together with Shevardnadze in the U.S.S.R. when the news of the Iraqi invasion broke on August 2, 1990, catching Shevardnadze entirely by surprise. A joint statement the very next day sharply condemned Iraq and called for an immediate cutoff of military equipment to Baghdad. The speed of the joint reaction placed an early gloss of strong theoretical and operational cooperation on the two countries' policies. Shevardnadze's response was pure new thinking, emphasizing the important challenge that Baghdad's aggression represented to the "new world order." Gorbachev's own first major public statement on the invasion highlighted the international legal aspects of the crisis, describing the Iraqi invasion as "an act of perfidy and a blatant violation of international law and the U.N. charter."

Soviet condemnation of Iraq was stunning and unprecedented. Gorbachev even stated that the Soviet Union bore special responsibility for the invasion, since Iraq employed weapons provided over many years by the U.S.S.R. for defensive purposes. Not only was the Iraqi act excoriated, but the very nature of Saddam Hussein's regime-long a close Soviet ally by virtue of a 1972 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation-was characterized in remarkably harsh language. "President Saddam's coming to power was accompanied by an unprecedented campaign to physically annihilate any dissidence, let alone any potential shouts of opposition. Thousands of Iraqi communists vanished into the dungeons of the security forces. The northern region of Iraq, Kurdistan, was drowned in a sea of blood when government troops enforced Baghdad's policy of assimilation of the Kurds."1

The joint Soviet-American statement and the early Security Council deliberations were to be the high point of Soviet-U.S. cooperation. Shevardnadze had quickly established basic Soviet policy before any other elements of the government had the opportunity to reconsider or react. (This was indeed one of the grievances of the conservatives.) The joint Soviet-American approach rested on a belief in principles and interests common to both sides. This belief tended to overlook the inevitable complications for Moscow of operational cooperation with a vigorous, tough, proactive U.S. policy. Also implicit from the outset was a joint commitment to the United Nations as the diplomatic vehicle of allied action. Moscow made it clear that any Soviet military action would have to come within that context.

Doubts emerged quickly in Moscow as Washington swiftly implemented bilateral security arrangements with Saudi Arabia and a massive airlift of troops and weapons to the kingdom. From Moscow's perspective the United States was interpreting U.N. Security Council authority to fit its own purposes, carrying the operation in directions disquieting to Soviet policy goals. Numerous Soviet elements, already unhappy on various grounds with Shevardnadze's cooperation with Washington, began to signal some of the more important implications of U.S. actions and to rally their own forces in response. As the crisis evolved, initial frictions over tactical issues stirred up old suspicions about the strategic intentions of the two nations.

The presence of Soviet military advisers in Iraq immediately invoked Soviet military interests in the conflict. Confusion and conflict reigned over their number, mission and the date of their possible departure. The Foreign Ministry suggested concern for the exposed position of Soviet advisers, but disclaimed knowledge of their military role. U.S. sources, meanwhile, reported on August 12 that the Soviets had up to 1,000 military advisers who were indeed still assisting the Iraqi army.2 Two days later the Defense Ministry denied Soviet advisers were helping either "the Iraqi President or the armed forces," but talked of their work on "repairs, education and construction."3 Yet on August 21 the Defense Ministry acknowledged without apology that Soviet military experts were working side by side with Iraqis, training them in high-tech weaponry and "working at maintenance centers and at target ranges testing the arms sold to Iraq." They added, however, that the advisers were not involved in planning the invasion of Kuwait.4 Soviet spokesmen later stated the advisers would be coming home as soon as their contracts were fulfilled.

A distinct Ministry of Defense agenda was revealed in the conflict. Military aid to Iraq has been a lucrative source of hard currency for Moscow for over twenty years. The Stockholm International Peace Institute estimated that Iraq spent $25 billion on arms in 1988, of which 53 percent went to the Soviet Union.5 The New York Times reported that the Soviet Union sold Iraq $23.5 billion worth of arms between 1982 and 1989.6 A $6-billion Iraqi military debt to the U.S.S.R. might also never be collectible now. Was Moscow to jeopardize its long-term arms relationship with Iraq because of nonfulfillment of existing contracts and cooperation with Washington?

Soviet military sensitivities were revealed in conflicting accounts of the Soviets providing intelligence information on Iraq to the United States. A Western diplomatic source in Moscow suggested in August 1990 that the United States and the Soviet Union were "exchanging impressions" about the situation in Iraq; a Soviet Defense Ministry spokesman, however, denied any sharing of information about the Iraqi military.7 The Sunday Times reported on August 19 that the U.S.S.R. had been providing a steady flow of intelligence to the United States on Iraqi weaponry, its characteristics and locations.8 Clearly such reports were embarrassing to the Soviet military and threatened its long-term credibility as an ally to Middle Eastern states. Washington itself did not shrink from embarrassing the Soviet military and driving a wedge between Moscow and Baghdad, announcing in January that "valuable intelligence information" from the Soviet Union possibly helped limit allied casualties in the air war.9

The Soviet Union maintained the same ambivalence about joining the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. On several occasions early in the conflict Shevardnadze stated the U.S.S.R. was considering sending troops or a naval force to the gulf. In the end it opted not to, on several grounds: concern about the safety of its citizens working in Iraq-a potentially explosive domestic issue; the implications for long-range Soviet ties with Iraq; memories of the Afghan imbroglio and a desire to avoid excessive identification with the growing ambition of U.S. war plans. The Soviet decision not to send troops came despite Washington's efforts, for the first time in forty years, to tempt the Soviets into an alliance and its offers to coordinate a major foreign aid program for Moscow.10

Still deeper suspicions between Moscow and Washington were raised by rumors of "advance knowledge" the Soviet military may have had of the Iraqi invasion, information that it reportedly withheld even from Shevardnadze-who was patently stunned by news of the attack. U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency sources reportedly leaked the belief that the Soviet military must have known of an event of such magnitude, and pointed to the mysterious visit to Iraq of a Soviet military hard-liner, Colonel-General Albert Makashov, two weeks before the invasion.11 It is entirely possible that some elements of the Soviet military knew of standing Iraqi operational plans for an invasion of Kuwait, but the existence of such plans does not mean they will be executed. Similarly, such reports filtering up to political levels of the Soviet military establishment may have been given limited credibility-reckoning Saddam would be foolish to do such a thing. American policymakers were similarly taken aback by the event, despite warnings of the possibility.

The intentions of the Soviet military were further clouded by a mysterious incident in early January: the attempted surreptitious delivery to Iraq of military supplies in a hidden compartment of the Soviet ship Dmitri Furmanov, intercepted by U.S. and Spanish naval forces on its way to Jordan.12 Soviet authorities then "diverted" the ship without further explanation. It seems unlikely that Gorbachev would have approved the shipment in violation of the U.N. embargo, but it is possible that certain Soviet military elements sought to fulfill their own agenda towards Iraq.

The Soviet military was also extremely uncomfortable with the actual combat phase of the crisis. After all, U.S. weaponry was not only pitted against a former Soviet military ally and long-term recipient of Soviet military training, but against Soviet weaponry-on the losing side. Much of the world, fairly or not, perceived the conflict as a proxy war between superpower weapons systems. Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov was explicit on the subject, recognizing that the war had prompted Soviet brass to review its air defense capabilities.13 Many Soviet commentators pointed out there was nothing wrong with Soviet weapons per se, as much as the forces using them. Even in the best light, however, the Soviet military did not look good in the encounter.

The charges went further. One prominent Soviet general complained that the United States prolonged the conflict against Iraq in part to test its advanced weapons systems, thereby threatening strategic parity.14 Others suggested that the Gulf War would allow the United States to inflate its military budget once again-a view heard from many in the United States as well. And when would U.S. troops ever leave the gulf once the war was over? Would a permanent U.S. military presence remain? General Vladimir Lobov, commander of the Warsaw Pact forces, observed that the presence of allied troops in Saudi Arabia now created a "single arc" of NATO forces from Europe through Turkey to the Middle East, which would sharply alter the strategic balance in the region.15 Not all military commentary was negative, but negative reactions received the bulk of coverage.

The Soviet military also expressed legitimate security concerns about the character of conflict in a region close to the U.S.S.R. The potential use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraqis or Americans was a worry, which the United States sought to allay, especially after Vice President Quayle refused to rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons by U.S. forces. Thoughtful Soviet observers could also not exclude the possibility that the war could well unleash dangerous regional effects: the collapse and possible breakup of Iraq, conflict between Turkey and Iran over the remnants, resurgent Kurdish nationalism, potential separatism in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan and ignition of volatile separatist urges in the Muslim states of the Soviet Union itself.

It is clear that the Soviet military was institutionally more at odds with stated Soviet policy than any other group. Whatever its ideological preferences and alliances-which are mixed-it has clear institutional interests in the maintenance of military ties with as many states as possible, in encouraging military sales and offering military training, in the avoidance of military conflict itself and in the reputation of its own weaponry. The Gulf War challenged all these interests.


The forces opposed to U.S. policies were hardly united or cohesive. On the contrary, they represented a broad range of opinion and reflected diverse concerns and agendas. The military had the most definable interests at stake. For others, the question of establishing an independent Soviet position was important. Indeed, for many it was not a question of whether to support Washington, but a question of degree. While many agreed with Soviet support for U.N. resolutions, they did not agree with the seeming license taken by the United States in their operational implementation. Several key dilemmas emerge for Soviet policy interests in this connection.

The greatest single concern uniting those forces in Moscow uncomfortable with U.S. military action-and even affecting many who generally favored U.S. policies-was the international position and great power status of the Soviet Union itself. The new world order was fine, but to what place did it relegate the Soviet Union? And what openings did it yield to the United States?

Anxiety over the character and shape of the post-Cold War international order actually emerged as rapidly in the Third World as it had in the Soviet Union. The collapse of communist ideology, the liberation of eastern Europe and the palpable descent of the Soviet Union into weakness and chaos took the world by surprise. Traditional verities about the character of the old international order were shattered. Radical Third World leaders, the Ortegas and the Mengistus, the Saddams, Qaddafis and Assads, long accustomed to the economic and military benefits of playing East against West, quickly recognized they would no longer loom as high on the international horizon.

Saddam Hussein was one of the first Third World leaders to address this issue directly. In the spring of 1991 he noted that the eclipse of the U.S.S.R. as a superpower would for at least a decade lead to a unipolar world, one in which the United States could work its will unhampered on the international scene. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in March 1990 likewise saw the changes in eastern Europe as working against the interests of the Palestinians: "Let us now perceive that Israel was the first beneficiary, among all nations of the world, of the international changes that have taken place."16 Interviews with leading Arab statesmen and intellectuals in this period reflected the view that "the end of the Cold War has upset basic Arab strategies" for dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some observers even viewed the decline of communism as comparable to the defeat of the Arab states in 1948 and the establishment of Israel.17 Even moderate Third World states recognized a regrettable loss of leverage with the United States due to the disappearance of a powerful Soviet counterbalance.

As Operation Desert Storm began to vent its force against Iraq, the irrepressible Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi declared the U.S.S.R. had "lost confidence in itself" and needed to regain its global role. He even expressed willingness to go to Red Square and personally deliver a pep talk to boost Russian morale.18 Sensing Soviet ambivalence, Saddam called on Gorbachev in early September to "redeem his nation's status as a superpower" by joining "the permanent angels" of the Arab world in a sacred struggle against the "devils" of America and the West. The world's small nations, too, usually feel more comfortable with the subtle leverages of a multipolar world than with the harsh certainties of unipolarity, and no one could predict how far the U.S. unilateral instinct might go. That question worried Moscow in full measure, despite Washington's care not to stray irrevocably beyond the strictures of the U.N. mandate.

The Soviet Union of course had historically dedicated itself ideologically to "the defense of Third World interests" (never mind that few states wished to become direct beneficiaries of that mission). But what was the Soviet mission now? Was not Saddam Hussein the epitome of an aspiring Third World,

1 Sovetskaia Rossiia, quoted in John-Thor Dahlburg, "Soviets Hurl Harsh Words at an Ex-Ally," The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 5, 1990.

2 Douglas Jehl, "Soviet Advisers Reported Aiding Iraqi Military," The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 12, 1990.

3 Carey Goldberg, "Moscow Denies Advisers Helping Iraq," The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 14, 1990.

4 John-Thor Dahlburg, "Soviets Still Training Iraqis on Use of Arms, Kremlin Acknowledges," The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 1990.

5 Ibid.

6 Anthony Cordesman, quoted in Elaine Sciolino, "Soviet-Iraqi Tie: Marriage of Strained Convenience," The New York Times, Sept. 9, 1990

7 The Los Angeles Times, op. cit., Aug. 14, 1990.

8 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Daily Analyses, Aug. 20, 1991.

9 The Associated Press, "Soviets Provide U.S. Intelligence on Iraq Military," in The Los Angeles Times, Jan. 17, 1991.

10 Karen Tumulty, "U.S. Offers Soviets Economic Aid for Cooperation on Iraq," The Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 1990.

11 Peter Schweitzer, "Is Moscow Playing Cute on Kuwait?," The New York Times, Aug. 22, 1990.

12 Suzanne Crow, "Diversion of Soviet Ship Raises Questions," RFE/RL Daily Analysis, Jan. 17, 1991.

13 RFE/RL Daily Analyses, March 1, 1991.

14 Former Warsaw Pact Commander Viktor Kulikov, as reported by Reuters in RFE/RL Daily Analyses, Feb. 20, 1991.

15 John-Thor Dahlburg, "Soviets See Power Shift in Gulf Area," The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 31, 1991.

16 Alan Cowell, "Syrian Leader Assails Change in East Bloc as Boon to Israel," The New York Times, March 9, 1990.

17 Youssef M. Ibrahim, "Arabs Fear Loss of East Bloc Aid as Cold War Ends," The New York Times, March 6, 1990.

18 RFE/RL Daily Analyses, Jan. 22, 1991.

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  • Graham E. Fuller is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency. The views expressed are his own. He is author of the forthcoming book, The Democracy Trap: Pitfalls of the Post-Cold War World.
  • More By Graham E. Fuller