Defense & Security Europe & Eurasia Politics & Government russia US

U.S.-Russia Relations Crumbled in the Gulf War’s Afterlife

Their unprecedented cooperation in the Gulf War gave the world a reason to believe that a partnership between Moscow and Washington could one day become a reality.

The Gulf War has often been hailed as a resounding success and a symbol of multilateralism’s incredible potential. Through a multinational effort which brought together partners from six continents, the United States and its allies quickly won the war, pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait with relatively few coalition casualties. 

Most remarkably, the war involved extensive U.S.-Soviet (later U.S.-Russia) coordination during and after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This closed the door on the Cold War and appeared to be the beginning of a more peaceful and cooperative international order. Although this level of optimism appears absurd today, it was justifiable at the time. Both the U.S. and the Soviets had indicated a desire to put the past behind them and step into the future as partners. Their unprecedented cooperation in the Gulf War gave the world a reason to believe that a partnership between Moscow and Washington could one day become a reality. However, it does not take a foreign policy expert to realize that today the U.S. and Russia are not allies; they are far from it. What became of these aspirations?

The War

“As I report to you, air attacks are underway against military targets in Iraq…Our objectives are clear: Saddam Hussein’s forces will leave Kuwait. The legitimate government of Kuwait will be restored to its rightful place, and Kuwait will once again be free.
Former American President George H.W. Bush, January 16, 1991

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the international community immediately took action. The U.N. Security Council called for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and imposed a worldwide trade ban on Iraq. The U.S. and its NATO allies moved troops into Saudi Arabia to protect it against a potential invasion from Baghdad, and several Arab nations joined the U.S.-led coalition. Iraq spent this time building up an occupying force of about 300,000 troops.  

On November 29, the Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to do so, and by January, the coalition against Iraq had grown to 700,000 troops, about 540,000 of whom were from the U.S. 

The U.S. military expected a difficult fight when planning Operation Desert Storm, largely because Iraq had the fourth-largest military in the world at the time. One U.S. military general anonymously foretold, “Many, many people are going to die. . . it’s not inconceivable we could lose.” The reality manifested quite differently: the U.S.-led coalition crushed the Iraqi military in fewer than 40 days. While there were somewhere between 8,000 and 50,000 Iraqi military deaths, about 300 allied service members were killed in the conflict. One U.S. marine pilot described the war as similar to “being in the Super Bowl, but the other team didn’t show up.”

This resounding victory represented more than an effective military strategy. It was the dawn of a “new world order” in which multilateralism reigned, violations of international law were punished, and the rule of law prevailed.  Particularly in the United States, the Gulf War victory was actively depicted as the beginning of a new era for international affairs. Joint U.S.-Soviet efforts following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait gave rise to widespread hopes for a warmer relationship between the two countries. Though the Soviet Union dissolved in the months following the Gulf War, optimism regarding its future with the United States was transferred to the U.S.-Russia relationship. However, these hopes soon faded as the Gulf War revealed American hegemony and as its aftermath created irreconcilable conflict between the U.S. and Russia. 

A Triumph for Multilateralism?

“Russia and the United States are charting a new relationship. And it’s based on trust; it’s based on a commitment to economic and political freedom; it’s based on a strong hope for true partnership.”
Former American President George H.W. Bush, February 1, 1992

 “I consider that I was very lucky in life, both as a political person and just as a man, to have met George Bush…We call each other on the telephone. We say Boris and say George. And already this says a lot.”
Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, February 1, 1992

In hindsight, this rosy rhetoric about the relationship between Washington and Moscow is laughable, but post-Gulf War, it was the norm, and justifiably so.  

Because of its diminishing capabilities, the U.S.S.R. was attempting to disentangle itself from regional conflicts and craft a new place for itself in the international arena. It was also desirous of curbing U.S. unilateralism. As a result, prior to the Gulf War, Gorbachev’s U.S.S.R. had been attempting to involve itself more deeply in the international community. In multiple statements, Gorbachev indicated a particular aspiration to strengthen theSecurity Council’s ability to promote international security through greater use of U.N. peacekeepers and active participation of Security Council permanent members. 

Nevertheless when Iraq first invaded Kuwait, in blatant violation of international law, there was some doubt as to how Moscow would respond. In stark contrast to its recent history with the U.S., the U.S.S.R. had been closely allied with Iraq for years. It had nearly 200 military advisors and several thousand civil technicians in Iraq at the time of the invasion as well as a strong pro-Iraq coalition in the Soviet Foreign Ministry.  

Doubts on the U.S.S.R.’s stance were largely dispelled when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. almost immediately issued a joint statement condemning the “brutal and illegal invasion of Kuwait.”  The U.S.  Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze happened to be meeting with each other when the crisis in the Persian Gulf began. They quickly penned their statement, indicating that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. would work together to pressure Iraq through such actions as an arms embargo and asset freezes. It seemed that this conflict was posed to bring Russia and the United States closer together.

Later on, Secretary Baker described U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the First Gulf War as “breathtaking,” especially considering the recent end of the Cold War. After its post-Gulf War emergence from the U.S.S.R., Russia continued supporting American efforts to use the problem of Iraq as a tool to forge a new world order. 

The Emergence of Unipolarity

“Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”
1992 Draft of U.S. “Defense Planning Guidance

Post-Cold War, the desire for a positive U.S.-Russia relationship had been motivated in part because it was believed that the only paradigm for maintaining peace was to establish a close, bilateral relationship based on multipolarity and interdependence between the two greatest superpowers in the world. The overwhelming Gulf War victory demonstrated the obsoleteness of that view. No longer were there two global superpowers; there was only one, and it was the United States.  

Though the Gulf War had been fought multilaterally, with troops and stratagems from several countries—including the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—the United States was by far the largest contributor to the efforts and quick victory, based on numbers of troops and participation in sorties. What had been considered a war that would last months or perhaps years, against the fourth most capable military in the world, was won by the United States in a matter of weeks.  

This demonstration of American competence immediately dimmed Washington’s motivation to prioritize Moscow’s concerns and revealed the stark power imbalance between the two states. The U.S. no longer needed Russia to accomplish its ends. While it may have preferred to work in tandem with Russia, the U.S. could and often did act in contravention of Russia’s desires when they diverged with American priorities.  When it came to Iraq, the two countries’ objectives diverged often.

The Gulf War caused far more damage to Iraqi infrastructure than anticipated, triggering an acute humanitarian crisis.  Saddam Hussein’s regime was committing atrocities against the Iraqi people and failing to abide by the Gulf War ceasefire agreement that gave U.N. inspectors full access to its weapons sites. Because of this, the U.S. insisted on maintaining economic sanctions on Iraq, which worsened Iraq’s humanitarian situation. The U.S. failure to lift sanctions on Iraq and alleviate the humanitarian crisis became a significant strain on U.S.-Russia relations.

There were two primary options for the lifting of sanctions on Iraq. The initial plan would exempt some exports and imports from sanctions, including some oil exports, to allow the Iraqi government to procure sufficient financing to address “essential civilian needs.” To ensure that oil revenue was not misused, the U.N. would expand monitoring mechanisms and all money would flow through U.S. banks. Iraq had assured the executive delegate for the humanitarian crisis in Iraq that it would acquiesce to the terms of this deal. However, the U.S. led a minority effort at the U.N. Security Council to block this proposal.  Disappointed that Hussein had survived the war, the U.S. did not want to give him the tools to reconsolidate his power by selling Iraqi oil and providing services for the Iraqi people.  

Instead, the U.S. backed a plan in which the U.N. would manage the sale of Iraqi oil and use the proceeds to deliver food and supplies to Iraqis. Most states that had supported the original resolution also supported this arrangement, though they expressed concern about apparent American unilateralism in blocking the first plan, which had been broadly supported. The U.S.-backed proposal passed a Security Council vote. As it turned out, Hussein cared too much about his own power to allow his government to be cut out of the equation in such a way, repeatedly rejecting the resolution as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. 

The humanitarian crisis continued in full force, and this disturbed the cooperative international order that had developed during the Gulf War, while also damaging America’s international reputation.  

As part of a campaign to lift the post-Gulf War sanctions on Iraq and depict the U.S. as the guilty party, Hussein’s Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party circulated documentation of the humanitarian crisis occurring in Iraq to potentially sympathetic international actors. After failing to engender the support of Yeltsin’s governing party, Ba’athists began appealing to the Russian opposition and popular press, with much greater success. The opposition spread this information through the Russian public, which began to pressure Yeltsin’s government on its treatment of a formerly close Russian ally. Finding the U.S. inflexible in its position, Yeltsin yielded to domestic pressure and took a stance defending Iraq and favoring lifting sanctions, against the will of the U.S.

This was problematic for Washington, particularly when it felt the need to militarily enforce Iraq-relevant U.N. resolutions. Because of Russia’s pro-Iraq stance, informing Moscow of potential U.S. military operations could warn the Iraqi regime and risk American lives and interests. However, if the U.S. did not tell Russia about its actions, it would undermine the trust needed to consolidate a cooperative international system. In general, the U.S. erred on the side of hiding its operations from Russia.  

The aftermath of the Gulf War was certainly not the only point of contention between Moscow and Washington. Conflicts over the Balkans and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe also marred bilateralism between the countries. However, the issue of Iraq was one significant, often overlooked factor that drove the broader deterioration of U.S.-Russia cooperation and affected other conflicts as well. 

CIA reports from 1993 asserted that tensions over Iraq increased Moscow’s insecurity over the possibility of U.S. intervention in the Balkans. Russia did not withdraw its ambassador to the U.S. over the Balkans or NATO expansion.  However, in 1998, it did withdraw its ambassador to the U.S. for the first time since World War II after the joint U.S.-U.K. bombing of Baghdad. On a phone call with former President Clinton, Boris Yeltsin directly asserted that “what is at stake is not just the person of Saddam Hussein but our relations with the U.S.” Clinton responded by emphasizing the importance of bilaterally developing a strategy for how to navigate U.S.-Russia tensions over Iraq.

However, the two countries were unable to deal with this tension, and the U.S.-Russia relationship has never fully recovered. Today, the U.S. and Russia are at odds on a range of issues, from Syria and eastern Europe to election interference and human rights. Both countries have expelled each other’s diplomats and imposed a series of unilateral sanctions. And the likelihood of warmer relations in the near future is diminishing.  

The issue of Iraq and the effects of the Gulf War, which had initially brought Washington and Moscow together in unprecedented coordination, damaged prospects for a positive relationship between the two. It is impossible to know whether different American policies in the wake of the Gulf War would have made possible a “new world order.” One thing is clear, however. The Gulf War cast a shadow that would damage post-Cold War prospects for a fruitful alliance between the United States and Russia for years to come.

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