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Russia: Moscow Unlikely To Be Swayed by Threat Over 'No' Vote On Iraq

In an interview published in a leading Russian newspaper, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow has warned Moscow that a "no" vote against a second United Nations resolution allowing war against Iraq will do extensive damage to U.S.-Russian relations. The U.S. envoy said budding economic cooperation could be especially hard-hit.

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow could hardly have been more explicit. In an interview published in yesterday's Moscow edition of the newspaper "Izvestiya," which was reprinted in today's national issue, Vershbow said Russia's leadership faced a clear choice: either say "yes" or abstain from voting on a second United Nations resolution allowing war against Iraq or face an immediate deterioration of ties with the United States.

Vershbow held out the promise of increased U.S. investment in the energy sector and said the United States was considering a new partnership with Russia in space, following the United States' loss of the space shuttle "Columbia." He added that Russia's relationship with NATO is beginning to yield positive results and could improve further.

But Vershbow said all these projects would be harmed if Russia vetoes a U.S.-backed UN resolution against Iraq. Vershbow said this would be a "great pity," but he left no doubt that bilateral ties across the board will suffer if Moscow chooses to go against the United States on this key issue. Vershbow said that "Russia should carefully weigh the consequences" of how it votes.

Vershbow's uncharacteristically blunt language has analysts questioning whether delivering what amounts to an ultimatum through the media will have the effect Washington desires. The interview comes days after Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Moscow would vote against any UN resolution paving the way for war against Iraq.

Ivanov, speaking today in Dushanbe, rebuffed Vershbow. He said any attempt to link the Russian position on Iraq with bilateral relations between Russia and the United States was "unjustified."

RFE/RL spoke to Sergei Markov, a top adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who currently heads the pro-Kremlin Institute for Political Studies, for his views on how Vershbow's words are being received in Moscow.

Markov said he believes the U.S. ambassador spoke on behalf of the U.S. State Department and administration as a whole, and he noted that the message Vershbow delivered is consistent with what Moscow sees as the prevailing attitude in Washington. "This comes out of the general U.S. philosophy that Russia is weak, Russia is in the United States' pocket, and if, for some reason, it strays from the path, it has to be pressured harshly," Markov said.

To Markov, the "Izvestiya" interview is the latest in a series of diplomatic gaffes by the United States that he said will only end up hurting Washington's longer-term foreign-policy interests. "Without a doubt, this is a huge mistake. But one has to say that American diplomacy, as a whole, not only that led by [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, has committed a multitude of the most serious mistakes. The image of the United States in the world at present, one has to say, is dreadful. And the United States is falling into a type of isolation. I would call it the trap of leadership. The war in Iraq is being unleashed in order to preserve the leadership of the United States. But since most countries and public opinion are opposed, we see that this war is undercutting the basis for the United States' global leadership," Markov said.

Nicholas Redman, Russia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, is less categorical than Markov in his assessment of U.S. policy. He said Washington is simply pushing all the buttons at its disposal in a last-minute attempt to swing the UN Security Council vote in its favor. But he agreed that attempting to bully Russia into agreement, or at least keeping silent, is likely to be counterproductive. "I think the U.S. is in a position where it has to push for a resolution now, and so it is pushing hard. This may not be productive, but this is all they have right now," Redman said.

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the strategic decision of aligning himself with the United States. But the Russian leader has come under increasing criticism at home for his policy, and observers say Vershbow's words will only provide further ammunition to the anti-U.S. camp in Russia.

The U.S. ambassador's appeal to Russia's economic interests is also likely to ring hollow. In reality, thanks to its exports of oil and gas, Russia does five times more trade with countries of the European Union than with the United States. According to Redman, visions of massive energy exports to the United States are pie in the sky for now. "The bulk of energy exports, the bulk of oil exports -- non-CIS exports -- certainly are going to Europe. Oil trade with the U.S. is negligible. It's a PR exercise. It makes no economic sense at the moment," Redman said.

When it comes to economics, Markov noted that Germany -- the most dovish country in Europe on the Iraq issue -- is in fact Russia's biggest trade partner. "From an economic point of view, the United States is an insignificant partner for Russia, and Germany is its main partner. America is interested in Russia as a geopolitical, strategic partner -- a partner in the war against terrorism and a leader that can help Russia out of the relative isolation it remains in to this day. But from the point of view of economics, the U.S. is an insignificant partner," Markov said.

Recently, U.S. President George W. Bush has come out in favor of repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era law that links Russia's trade privileges to its policies on Jewish emigration. But Markov said that Russians find Bush's words to be little more than further proof of Washington's condescending attitude. "The elimination of the Jackson-Vanik amendment is linked to the U.S. Congress's point of view, that this is a huge gift to Russia. But from our point of view, the very existence of Jackson-Vanik is a shocking disgrace for the American political elite, which, 15 years after limits on Jewish emigration were lifted, continues to trade on this issue in a manner that is unseemly and unconscionable."

The crisis over Iraq has already revealed deep rifts between the United States and many of its European allies. Now, as both sides retreat to hard-line positions, the new partnership between the United States and Russia forged in the wake of 11 September appears imperiled as well.