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Russia: Cozy Talks In Paris, But Putin Still Aiming To Strike Delicate Balance On Iraq

Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his state visit to France this week, pleased his hosts by appearing to tilt toward the French position on Iraq. Does Putin's signing of a joint declaration on Iraq with both France and Germany signal Moscow is drawing away from its post-9/11 ties with the United States? Is France forming a new long-term eastern alliance at the expense of its relations with Washington? Or is this realignment destined to be short-lived and simply part of a pragmatic political calculation by both sides? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to analysts in Paris and Moscow for their opinion on what the new Franco-Russian entente means.

Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- French President Jacques Chirac pulled out all the stops during Russian President Vladimir Putin's state visit to France this week, even casting aside protocol on Putin's arrival to personally greet him at the airport, instead of settling for the customary first handshake at the Elysee Palace in central Paris.

And Putin, who wraps up his three-day visit today, repaid his host's consideration by publicly siding with France and Germany, in their bid to prolong United Nations inspections missions in Iraq and avert U.S.-led military action against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Putin's signaling that he is not currently prepared to support the United States should it seek a further UN resolution comes just days of the crucial 14 February report by chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix before the Security Council.

Coming at a time when Chirac faces intense pressure from Washington and several other European allies in NATO to fall into line, Putin's show of support is an important boost for the French president.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Putin on 10 February, Chirac stressed the common front formed by France, Germany, and Russia: "There is still an alternative to war, we are sure of that. The use of force would constitute only the last resort. Russia, Germany, and France are determined to do everything they can to ensure that Iraq is disarmed through peaceful means."

But does Putin's position signal that Moscow is pulling away from Washington, at a time when the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has made its partners' willingness to sanction force against Iraq a test of trans-Atlantic friendship? No, says veteran Russian foreign policy analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of Moscow's Politika Foundation.

Nikonov tells RFE/RL that Russia is not ready to sacrifice its special post-9/11 relationship with the United States. He says Putin, by necessity, is engaged in a balancing act:

"Putin has a rather difficult task to manage. Any war with Iraq is not his war, it's not a Russian matter. And in these conditions, he is seeking to maintain normal relations with all of Russia's key partners, with our main economic partners which are West European countries such as Germany and France, in the first place; with the United States, as a strategic partner, with Muslim countries, which frame our geopolitical borders in the south and with the Muslim population within Russia itself. This is a very difficult task. It is analogous to a high-wire balancing act over a precipice. But so far, Putin has succeeded. He is leaving all doors open and has been smart enough not to spoil relations with anyone."

Foreign affairs expert Marie Mendras, of the Paris-based Center for International Study and Research (CERI), says Putin's current backing of France suits Russia's strategic interests. By stressing the leading role of the UN Security Council, where it -- like France -- has veto power, Russia raises its own profile. At little cost, Putin can thus demonstrate to a domestic audience that Russia is following an independent course that is not subject to U.S. dictates.

"For Putin, it's very good news to be able -- at a very low cost -- not to have to side with the U.S. 100 percent because it's quite productive in internal Russian politics," she said. "Among the elites, the idea that Russia doesn't have to be a surrogate of the United States is excellent. And Russian public opinion is also quite happy that Russia can have its own voice and can be a partner of European powers and is not only 100-percent directed toward a partnership with the United States."

As an added bonus, Russia's backing of Paris and Berlin allows Moscow to exploit the rift in NATO caused by German and French opposition to military action in Iraq.

Mendras added: "There's one thing that Vladimir Putin can rejoice at. He recently decided to accept NATO enlargement to the former satellites of the Soviet Union and even to the Baltic states. And so the fact that NATO today is in crisis and that there has been an ongoing debate over the last 10 years about the future of NATO -- the fact now [allows him to] say: 'You see, NATO is not such a strong and united alliance, it's very complicated and maybe in some ways outmoded. It's not adapted to the new dangers and the new stakes.'"

But Mendras does not believe Moscow's tilt toward France negates its attempts to cultivate a strategic relationship with the United States: "I don't think one should look at it as a zero-sum game. If Russia sides with France and Germany on refusing the automatic logic of war against Iraq, it doesn't mean that Russia wants to destroy its strategic partnership with the United States. I think it wants both. It wants to be accepted by the United States as a special partner in strategic affairs and nonproliferation issues and the so-called war against global terrorism. But Russia also wants to keep a European hand, to be a partner in European security."

For Chirac, Mendras says, the situation is potentially trickier. For now, the French president can count on strong backing from the French people. Polls show a large majority of French people are opposed to what they view as the U.S. administration's march toward war.

"The majority of the French are very much against Saddam's regime and very much for a solution that would mean that the regime would fall and something better would come in Iraq," Medras said. "But the French are growing more anti-American, in the sense of opposing the Bush administration's methods, rhetoric, and what is called in France the unilateralism of the U.S. This is really the atmosphere in France."

If a U.S.-led war does break out in coming weeks, however, France's government may have to reevaluate its stance and go against public opinion. Paris remains anchored in the defense and political architecture of NATO and cannot afford to permanently damage its ties with Washington and fellow NATO allies, most of whom already back Washington's stance. In addition, France will not want to be left out of any postwar settlement in Iraq, especially when it comes to oil and reconstruction projects.

Mendras: "What if the U.S. goes to war, even against the opinion of the Security Council and the opinion of France, Germany, Russia and several other countries? Because we are a member of NATO -- France is a member of NATO -- it will be very difficult to devise a French position that will not go against the interest of the United States and NATO partners that will be involved in the conflict. That's really the question mark and it's very difficult to say today, to predict what the French position will be in case the U.S. goes to war without the approval of the United Nations."

Jacques Beltran, at the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI), says much will depend on the 14 February testimony by the weapons inspectors in front of the Security Council.

"France's position today really depends on what the inspectors are going to say on Friday," Beltran said. "If the inspectors go to the UN Security Council and say that Baghdad has significantly changed its behavior, it's going to be very difficult for France. Whatever the economic interests or strategic interests in the reconstruction of Iraq, it will be very difficult for the French government to take part in this operation. If inspectors, on the contrary, say that Baghdad hasn't changed its behavior, that it carries on with passive cooperation and not active cooperation, then following France's line that war is not ruled out, France could join an operation. So it really depends on what the inspectors are going to say and what the prospects are for efficient inspections in the future."

Beltran approves of the French government's current policy but he says Chirac made a mistake and needlessly curtailed his maneuvering room by giving the world the impression that Paris's position is identical to Germany's pacifist stance:

"If there's one mistake to find in France's policy in the recent weeks or months, I think it's probably the position France adopted on the occasion of the commemoration of the Elysee Treaty, the Franco-German treaty. At that time, President Chirac and Foreign Minister [Dominique] de Villepin both mentioned that France's position was very close to the German one. This, I think, was completely wrong. Germany has adopted a very pacifist position, ruling out any war even if it's decided with a UN Security Council resolution. This is not the French position and this mistake, I think, was corrected when [de Villepin] intervened after [U.S. Secretary of State Colin] Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council. Basically, de Villepin came back to France's initial position, which is that war is not ruled out, but we want to push -- as far as possible and as much as possible -- the peaceful solution of inspections."

And what about Russia? What are the chances that it too may reverse course and end up siding with a U.S.-led war? Vyacheslav Nikonov in Moscow says it could yet happen and public opinion, as in many other European countries -- which have come out in favor of the U.S. position despite strong antiwar majorities among their respective citizens -- will largely be disregarded.

"Public opinion is a factor in the politics of any state. But, as we can see, around the world, it's not having much of an impact. In Britain, public opinion opposes war," Nikonov said. "Nevertheless, there will be a war with British participation. In the United States, a majority want military action to be sanctioned by the United Nations. But it appears military action will take place without that sanction. As for Russian public opinion, I can't say that the Iraq issue has elicited strong passions. Saddam Hussein doesn't have so many fans in Russia. Of course, American military action against Iraq will be seen by most people as aggression, as a violation of international law, but I don't think it will cause serious protests, as was the case during the bombing of Belgrade."

The game of high-stakes political poker continues. And in politics, as in poker, it isn't necessarily the hand you're dealt that matters, but how you play it.