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U.S./Russia: Secretary Of State Visit Comes Amid Signs Moscow Is Softening Stance On Iraq

  • Gregory Feifer

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Moscow tomorrow. His trip comes as Russia shows signs of softening its staunch opposition to Washington's plans for Iraq, but only after relations between the two sides markedly deteriorated over the U.S.-led war. It remains to be seen whether Powell's fence-mending visit will bridge the gap any more than last month's attempt by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was caught off guard by the Kremlin's brusque treatment. RFE/RL reports from Moscow.

Moscow, 13 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Moscow tomorrow in a crucial bid to gain support for a new U.S.-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution over Iraq.

The document -- to also be debated tomorrow at the UN -- would lift sanctions against Iraq and approve the U.S.-led coalition's role in guiding the Middle East country's postwar reconstruction.

Moscow and Washington have fallen out over the Kremlin's stiff opposition to the Iraqi conflict and its ongoing criticism of the Anglo-American decision to sideline the UN in Baghdad's immediate future.

But there are signs the Kremlin is listening to its foreign policy establishment by finally softening its stance and seeking to put the conflict behind it. Speaking at a Moscow conference yesterday, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov -- usually known for his hard-line statements -- said both sides have the potential to improve relations.

"At the height of the Iraq crisis, we were not acting against each other, but were defending different approaches to the solution of a very complex international problem," Ivanov said.

Such conciliatory statements are a change from those made during and after the conflict, when Russian politicians and public opinion loudly condemned U.S. policy. Foreign policy experts in Moscow decried what they said was a Kremlin-approved wave of anti-American rhetoric. In a marked departure from his own previous finger-wagging, Ivanov yesterday stressed Moscow and Washington have actually been on the same side of the issue all along.

"I want to underline one more time that our differences were characterized by an approach toward solving the problem and not in a fight against one another. That is a cardinally important fact," Ivanov said. "It is exactly with this approach that we come to the pending Moscow talks with U.S. Secretary of State Powell."

Ivanov went on to say that future relations would be guided by "partnership and cooperation in the interests of both states and international stability."

"Mutual interest in the search for solutions to global problems can bring the positions of Moscow and Washington closer together," he added.

The Powell-Ivanov meeting -- representing the highest-level U.S.-Russia contact since the war in Iraq ended -- comes as members of the UN Security Council are mulling the draft resolution floated by Washington on 9 May. The document would approve the role of the U.S.-led military coalition now running Iraq ahead of the creation of an Iraqi-led interim government.

The document, co-sponsored by Britain and Spain, would also 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 UN would play an advisory role, allowed only a coordinator who would work with the U.S.-British coalition.

Powell described the resolution last week: "It'll be a resolution and I'm not going to go into the details of it, but you can be sure that it is a resolution that does not fight the battles of the past but is forward-looking, a resolution that will unite the international community to help the people of Iraq to a better life and to build a new government. It will lift the sanctions to that end, and I think that it's a resolution that everybody will be able to rally around, and it is also a resolution that will give a role to the Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] to play and the United Nations to play, to play the vital role that [U.S.] President [George] Bush has spoken of."

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin batted down an offer to mend fences over the issue from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who faced an unexpected and unceremonious dressing down during a Moscow visit last month.

Russia does not want to see Iraqi oil under Washington's control and has so far opposed the proposed measures, saying the UN should play a central role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction. Moscow says UN inspectors must verify that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction before sanctions can be lifted.

The UN Security Council split in March when Russia -- one of five permanent members with veto power over any resolution -- joined Germany and fellow permanent member France in adamantly opposing the Anglo-American decision to go to war in Iraq.

France and Germany made conciliatory moves after the war began, leaving Russia the loudest opponent.

But in signaling that Moscow might be seeking to put the standoff over Iraq behind it, Ivanov also indicated that the Kremlin may be playing for larger chips. He said yesterday the future system of international relations should be "multipolar" -- Russia's oft-repeated keyword for opposition to U.S. dominance on the world stage.

"This model can be pictured as a pyramid headed by the UN and the Security Council and based on international law," Ivanov said.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, meanwhile, indicated that Washington would be pushing its own long-term vision. He said the United States is seeking to transform the Security Council to be able to deal with "new threats," adding that passage of the draft resolution would constitute a first step, Interfax reported.

But Vershbow said Powell's meeting with Ivanov tomorrow will concentrate on the Security Council resolution on Iraq.

"We hope to find a common approach to these problems," he said, speaking of the ending of UN sanctions and postwar reconstruction.

Andrei Zagorsky, deputy director of Moscow's Institute for Applied International Studies, concurs that while the Powell-Ivanov meeting may touch on broad questions, such as the role of the UN, it will concentrate on specific questions over the UN resolution.

"The key role of the meeting with Powell should be for both sides to work out a number of details and questions concerning the concrete text of the resolution submitted to the UN Security Council," Zagorsky says. "I hope the two countries will be able to agree and that the resolution will be adopted."

Zagorsky adds that Russia "is not yet prepared" to engage in serious dialogue over the UN's future.

Both sides have said the upcoming talks will include discussion of bilateral relations in general and preparations for a summit between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in St. Petersburg at the end of the month.