The first time Boris Yeltsin warned that American airstrikes on Iraq could lead to World War III, a lot of people shrugged it off as the ranting of a drunkard.

When the Russian president said the same thing again a few days later last month, people finally started paying serious attention.What's going on in Moscow? many asked. Why were Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, going so far out of their way to protect Saddam Hussein, an unpredictable and unworthy ally if there ever was one? Didn't they realize that sticking up for the despised Iraqi dictator wasn't too smart?

What, after all, could Hussein possibly do for them in return?

An awful lot, it turns out.

The main thing to keep in mind is that Iraq, and Saddam in particular, have been favorites for years in Moscow - first when it was capital of the Soviet Union, and now its much-reduced successor, the Russian Republic. Another point worth remembering is that Saddam and Primakov, Yeltsin's foreign policy chief, go back a long way, too.

In fact, Primakov and Saddam have been what you might call buddies for almost 30 years - since the Arabic-speaking KGB spy worked in Baghdad under journalistic cover and Saddam was an ambitious military man moving ruthlessly toward the top.

Primakov, especially, profited from the alliance. Saddam's rise to power was proof that Primakov had his finger on Iraq's political pulse and that of the Arab world in general. His own rise to the top of Moscow's intelligence bureaucracy was almost a foregone conclusion.

In a way, Primakov owed Saddam for at least part of his own success. (The fact that Primakov also had family ties to those at the top in the KGB and premier's office also helped, to be sure.)

In any case, Washington's seemingly single-minded support for Israel during those years made Moscow's strategy of courting the Arabs fairly uncomplicated - simply portray the United States as a Zionist puppet and sell the most radical Arab nations such as Syria, Libya and Iraq all the tanks, planes and guns they could afford.

In addition to increasing its influence in the world's prime oil-producing region, the Persian Gulf, Moscow would be thwarting American diplomacy and making some money to boot.

A good part of that strategy fell apart during the gulf war seven years ago. Moscow lost its biggest arms client, Iraq, and the United States took advantage of the war's fallout to re-establish itself as the pre-eminent outside power in the region. Not only that, Baghdad still owed Russia $10 billion or so for its weapons purchases and couldn't pay up because of the U.N. economic embargo.

And when the Soviet Union itself collapsed later that year, Moscow lost its own major source of petroleum, the Caspian Sea oil fields of Azerbaijan.

The disaster couldn't have been more complete.

Taking all this into consideration, it's easy to figure why Primakov and company have been hustling the past few years to protect Saddam and get Iraq out from under the U.N. economic sanctions. It's part of Moscow's plan to counter U.S. diplomacy and get itself back in the game.

But there's yet another factor to consider in understanding what Russia is up to this time around. It's that Russian oil companies - all of them directly linked to various officials in the Kremlin leadership - have been signing billions of dollars in contracts with Iraq in recent months.

The expectation, obviously, is that Moscow and its friends will soon be able to rescind the U.N. sanctions and help Iraq get back in business. Baghdad would then be able to start repaying its debts again and Russian companies would have the inside track in Iraq's resurgent oil industry.

From that point of view, the U.N. secretary-general's proposal to double Iraq's permissible humanitarian oil sales is only a step in the right direction - the first major break in the U.S.-backed economic sanctions.

So whatever else happens in the coming weeks, you can count on it that Primakov and the rest of the Russian leadership will be doing everything they can to prevent U.S. airstrikes against Iraq. And if those airstrikes do take place, Moscow can be expected to be far out front in presenting Saddam's case to the world and calling for an end to the economic sanctions.

Yeltsin may have been exaggerating when he talked about World War III recently, but it's hard to exaggerate the central importance of Iraq in Russian foreign policy these days.