At the time, Russia’s lobbying to lift oil sanctions against Iraq made a certain kind of sense. Saddam Hussein’s regime owed Russia billions and Moscow was hoping to get it back. Now it turns out there was much more to Russia’s agitating on behalf of Iraq in the United Nations. Saddam was bribing key Russian officials with cut-rate oil allocations.
And that, in turn, was pretty good reason for Russia to try to block the U.S.-led invasion: If Saddam’s regime fell, the world would find out about the bribes. And now it has, thanks to a probe by a Senate subcommittee.
From 1996 to 2003, the life of the world agency’s oil-for-food program, Saddam handed out oil allocations to senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin, including his former chief of staff; political parties, including Putin’s own; and politicians like zany ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Even a government council of presidential advisers came in for $16 million in allocations.
Saddam allowed those favored to buy the allocations at a steep discount. They could be sold at a fat profit and still leave room for a generous kickback to Saddam, who siphoned off $2 billion from the oil-for-food deal. According to the Senate report, Russians accounted for more than 30 percent of the allocations.
Instead of spending the money on food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance, the whole point of the program, Saddam spent it on himself and his underlings. Saddam wanted more than good will; he wanted results and generously rewarded the Russians for killing a move in the U.N. Security Council to tighten restrictions on his regime.
And it might have worked had Iraq not been invaded. France and Germany, whose politicians were also rewarded, were joining the clamor to lift sanctions. Meanwhile, another probe headed by former U.S. central banker Paul Volcker, found that the U.N.’s head of the oil-for-food program probably profited from it.
Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Feisal Amin Istrabadi, told the Washington Post, "There were certainly commercial and political interests involved, and Russia behaved like any other state in looking out for itself." Sadly, that seems to have been the case.