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Russia: Rebuffing Blair, Putin Sets Stage For Showdown Over Iraq

  • Gregory Feifer

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is telling European and other countries they should line up behind Washington if they want to influence U.S. actions. Blair took his message to Moscow yesterday, but Russian President Vladimir Putin flatly turned him down, setting a course toward collision, RFE/RL reports.

Moscow, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been busy in recent days setting out his vision for the future of international relations, saying European and other countries should support Washington if they want to influence its actions.

Taking aim chiefly at countries that staunchly opposed the war in Iraq, including France and Russia, Blair took his message to Moscow yesterday to urge President Vladimir Putin to end disagreements over the postwar reconstruction of the Middle East country.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Putin's residence outside the capital, Blair said Russia should support U.S. and British control over Iraq.

"Are our colleagues on the Security Council prepared to accept that our soldiers, having fought and died in respect of this war in Iraq, cannot simply hand over Iraq to the sole charge of the UN whilst coalition forces are there on the ground stabilizing the situation? That's the first test of whether this partnership can be made to work again. And I think it can be made to work, but it requires goodwill and it requires a real vision and acceptance that this strategic partnership is the only alternative to a world in which we break up into different poles of power, acting as rivals to one another," Blair said.

Blair's mission -- primarily aimed at trying to avert a new showdown in the United Nations Security Council over Iraq's future -- failed spectacularly.

Putin flatly turned down the British prime minister's proposal. He went so far as to appear to mock the main stated aim of the war -- the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- in front of an uncomfortable-looking Blair.

"Where is Saddam [Hussein]? Where are those arsenals [of weapons of mass destruction]? If they really existed, what is happening to them now? Maybe Saddam is sitting somewhere in a secret bunker, planning to blow up all that stuff at the end. We don't know that. These questions still need to be answered," Putin said.

Western media called Putin's rejection a humiliation for Blair. Some even predicted the start of a new Cold War.

Blair set out his views in an interview with the "Financial Times" this week, where he said the world needs a "one-polar power" led by the United States and including European and other countries. Arguing against the establishment of a "multipolar" world -- as advocated by Russia, France, and other countries -- he said the best way to influence U.S. actions is to support Washington.

The Security Council was split last month when Russia -- one of five permanent members with veto power over any resolution -- joined Germany and fellow permanent member France in opposing the Anglo-U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq.

Washington is currently pushing a new Security Council resolution that would lift sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The measures would end Iraq's oil-for-food program and with it the UN's control over the country's oil revenues.

The resolution would also back the role of the U.S.-led military coalition now running Iraq ahead of the creation of an Iraqi interim government.

But Russia does not want to see Iraqi oil under Washington's control and stands staunchly against the proposed measures, saying the UN should play a central role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

Putin yesterday said UN inspectors must verify that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction before sanctions can be lifted. Russia has also called for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an expanded oil-for-food program, controlling oil sales and oil field development until the establishment of an internationally recognized Iraqi government.

Duma Deputy Alexei Arbatov, who belongs to the liberal Yabloko Party, is a prominent member of the country's foreign policy establishment. He told RFE/RL that the main impediment to the establishment of Blair's global scenario is not Russian opposition as much as Washington itself, which -- in his words -- is "not acting as a leader of an alliance."

Arbatov says the White House must learn to respect international law, set out chiefly by the UN and its Security Council. "When the United States adopts a different position and says, 'We will do everything we feel necessary, and we care neither about the UN Security Council -- which should be sidelined anyway -- nor about our allies, partners, and all other countries,' then it destroys the coalition. There remains nothing left to restrain American one-sided actions other than to use our common power to oppose them," he said.

Arbatov said the war in Iraq was barely tied to the common threat of international terrorism and had much to do with U.S. interests, chiefly over oil.

He added that, contrary to Blair's warning, Russia will retain its global influence whatever happens -- and that the formulation of its role depends on Moscow itself and not Washington.

"Russia will in any case play a large role. It will depend chiefly not on whether or not the United States grants us that favor, but on how clearly Russia will formulate its own interests and priorities and organize its diplomacy and military and economic policy to achieve its goals. So far, we haven't done that," Arbatov said.

Arbatov argued that it is up to Washington to bring about Blair's vision of international relations. "The keys are in the hands of the White House," he said.

Analysts say outright opposition to Washington, as opposed to dialogue, makes little sense for furthering Russia's national interests.

Andrei Piontkovsky, the director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies, disagrees with Arbatov's view, saying Moscow made a series of "very serious" mistakes in the course of the Iraq conflict, led by a "political class" that was engaged in an "orgy of anti-American envy."

"Washington isn't forcing Putin to degrade himself or lose face. Blair's mission to Moscow was to make Moscow's return make sense. But it would be stupid to expect some kind of steps of repentance from Washington," Piontkovsky said.

Andrei Zagorsky, the deputy director of Moscow's Institute for Applied International Studies, said calls by Russian politicians for a multipolar world do not make sense for Moscow.

"If a multipolar world is actually brought about, Russia wouldn't be one of its poles, which is obvious enough in every prognosis, first of all concerning economic development. Russia would simply become lost in such a multipolar world, or suffer the fate of a junior partner -- either to China or the United States or Western Europe," Zagorsky said.

According to Zagorsky Washington does listen to its allies in cases in which it wants to cooperate. He said leaders such as Putin have the ability to influence its decisions -- as Blair currently does -- if they accept reality and acknowledge U.S. claims to the leading international role.

Yesterday's lightning summit between Putin and Blair, meanwhile, put rapprochement with Moscow further out of reach, with Russian media outlets largely characterizing the meeting as one between a peace-seeking, principled Putin dealing with Blair, the head of what one paper (Izvestiya) termed "a warring state."