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Russia: Vershbow's Comments Raise Hackles In Moscow

  • Jeremy Bransten

Recent comments by the U.S. ambassador to Moscow have raised hackles at the Russian Foreign Ministry. U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said U.S. forces could not guarantee the security of the Russian Embassy in Baghdad, as Washington no longer recognizes the mission's official status. Vershbow also called on Moscow to actively cooperate in sharing its intelligence with the United States on Iraq. What effect are Vershbow's comments likely to have? Is there validity to the U.S. argument that Moscow's mission in Baghdad is no longer covered by diplomatic immunity?

Prague, 17 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow's recent comments about Russia and Iraq provoked an angry response from the Russian Foreign Ministry and recalled earlier controversial statements by Washington's envoy to Moscow.

Vershbow, in an interview with the Interfax news agency last weekend, said Washington no longer views the Russian Embassy in Baghdad as a diplomatic mission and cannot accept responsibility for the staff's safety.

In the interview, Vershbow also hinted that the Russian authorities may be withholding intelligence on Iraq that could be useful to the United States. He called on Moscow to share any information at its disposal that could lead to the capture of fugitive Ba'ath Party leaders, including Saddam Hussein himself.

The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately issued a statement in which it criticized Vershbow for communicating with the Russian authorities through the media. Deputy Foreign Minister Anatolii Safonov, in a meeting with Vershbow on 14 July, stressed what he said was America's obligation to provide security for the Russian diplomatic mission in Baghdad, in accordance with international legal norms.

Several questions are raised by this latest war of words. First, is Vershbow's claim that Washington no longer recognizes the diplomatic status of the Russian Embassy in Baghdad legitimate?

For an answer, RFE/RL turned to Hans Koechler, chairman of the department of philosophy at the University of Innsbruck and author of a forthcoming book on the application of international law. Koechler said despite the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, to which foreign missions in Baghdad were accredited, foreign embassies still operating in the Iraqi capital continue to enjoy diplomatic status, until a new Iraqi government can decide on their fate. It is not up to a foreign army, Koechler said, to make that determination.

"In my view, foreign missions in Baghdad still enjoy diplomatic immunity and the foreign power or foreign powers, having occupied the country, would have to guarantee the immunity of the premises and the safety of the diplomatic personnel. And now it's a question of the new authorities that are being set up in Iraq to decide about diplomatic relations," Koechler said.

Koechler said the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, indirectly confirmed this fact when he recently referred a journalist's question about obtaining visas to Iraq to the competent authorities at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.

In the meantime, Koechler added, coalition forces must continue to protect foreign diplomatic sites and their employees in Baghdad, as set out under the Geneva Conventions, much as foreign governments continue to protect Iraqi embassies abroad.

"The United States is now the occupying power on the territory of Iraq and the United States is bound by international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions and so on," Koechler said. "The United States has to guarantee public order, the safety of the civilian population and it has to respect those diplomatic premises that exist, for the time being."

Most observers in Moscow doubt the United States will actually allow the Russian mission to be harmed, as this could provoke an international scandal. But they interpret Vershbow's statement as a warning to Russian diplomats -- an echo of an earlier Vershbow interview in March, in which he cautioned the Russian government to "carefully weigh the consequence" of its stance on Iraq for future bilateral relations.

Moscow-based political analyst Andrei Piontkovskii offered RFE/RL this interpretation: "If you want to put the subtext into more direct language, it sounds like this: 'Cooperate more with us. All the channels for this [cooperation] already exist without needing to establish an embassy in Baghdad that is going to be doing everything but cooperating with us.' It is both a call to cooperate with alliance forces and a warning not to work with other forces."

Piontkovskii says he does not believe diplomats at the Russian Embassy in Baghdad are sheltering any former Iraqi officials, but whether they are in possession of potentially useful documents is another issue. The unexplained circumstances of the Russian ambassador's delayed departure from Baghdad in April -- long after other foreign ambassadors had left the city -- and his subsequent return to the Iraqi capital after an unexpected ambush, raised suspicions that the Russians may have been trying to transport sensitive documents out of the country. Piontkovskii said: "Given modern means of detection, I doubt anyone could be hidden in the embassy building. But whether our side may have useful information about where people sought by the United States are hiding -- this I can't exclude."

So will the U.S. ambassador's appeal be heeded by Moscow? Piontkovskii said one thing is for certain: Russian President Vladimir Putin is banking on good relations with the United States and will be careful not to antagonize Washington. His studious lack of public reaction to Vershbow's comments reflects this, Piontkovskii said. But at the same time, Putin is treading a fine line in a bid to placate hard-liners critical of his pro-U.S. leanings.

"Putin will not want to aggravate relations with the Americans. And at the same time, there will always be forces in Moscow -- relatively influential -- that will seek just such a development. That is why Russian policy gives the impression, and will continue to give the impression, of inconsistency and contradiction," Piontkovskii said.

But that is something that should be familiar to the U.S. administration, which itself is no stranger to internal divisions.

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