Russia has denied U.S. accusations that it secretly sold military equipment to Iraq, with some Moscow commentators saying Washington is looking for excuses to explain setbacks in its military campaign against Baghdad. Russian President Vladimir Putin has harshly condemned the war, but at least one Moscow analyst says the current spat does not yet indicate relations will significantly sour over the issue.
Moscow, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow adamantly denies U.S. allegations that it illicitly sold military technology to Iraq, with some commentators saying Washington is fishing for excuses to explain early setbacks in its campaign against Baghdad.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer yesterday said the United States has what he called "credible evidence" that Russian companies sold Iraq antitank weapons, night-vision goggles, and technology to jam global positioning system (GPS) satellite signals that U.S. forces could use to guide bombs.
U.S. President George W. Bush discussed the issue in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin yesterday. "The relations between the United States and Russia are important relations that the two presidents are dedicated to keeping. There are problems. This clearly is a problem that needs to be resolved, and this is why it came up in the phone call. This is why it is disturbing, and this is why the two have talked about it," Fleischer said.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, said the equipment could help Iraqi forces and put U.S. soldiers into harm's way.
Washington has suspected Moscow of providing such technology for months.
"The Washington Post" on 23 March reported that three Russian companies made sales to Iraq. The newspaper said these include state-controlled KBP Tula, which provided antitank guided missiles, and private Aviaconversiya, which supplied jamming devices.
Both companies deny the claims.
Reports say Washington also suspects private Russian technicians of training Iraqis in the use of the equipment after Washington launched its attack last week.
The Kremlin went on the offensive today, saying Putin denied the allegations to Bush. Presidential spokesman Aleksei Gromov quoted Putin as saying Washington has failed to provide proof to support the accusations.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov yesterday also denied the allegations, which, if true, would place Russia in violation of United Nations sanctions. "First of all, I would like to state that Russia fully complies with all international obligations and never sold any military or other equipment to Iraq in violation of the sanctions regime," Ivanov said. Ivanov repeated Moscow's claim in a telephone conversation with Powell today.
Duma Deputy Andrei Kokoshin, a former head of Putin's Security Council, said Russian-sold equipment could have been resold to Iraq by other countries.
Russian analysts have said Washington's accusations could be part of an attempt to punish Russia for opposing the U.S. campaign on the UN Security Council. The gazeta.ru website writes, "It appears that Washington has in advance begun looking for a justification for the setbacks during missile strikes and the actions of its land forces in Iraq."
Disagreement over Iraq has damaged U.S.-Russian ties, with U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow warning Moscow this month that its opposition to Washington's intentions to attack Iraq could affect U.S. cooperation in the energy, security, antiterrorism, and space sectors -- in addition to Russian oil interests in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
While the exchanges have prompted commentators to say the post-11 September 2001 honeymoon between Moscow and Washington may be over, others say it is too early to say how relations between the two sides will eventually play out.
Russia has bitterly opposed the war in Iraq, together with France, Germany, and China. Putin lashed out last week, calling Washington's decision to undertake military action against Baghdad without UN approval a "big political mistake." "This military action cannot be justified by anything: neither by accusations that Iraq supports international terrorism -- we have never had such information -- nor by the desire to change the country's political regime, which goes against international law and can be determined only by citizens of this or that country," Putin said.
Foreign Minister Ivanov reiterated Moscow's opposition yesterday: "We think that the military operations must be stopped and the resolution [of the Iraqi crisis] should be brought back into the hands of the UN Security Council."
But Putin has a reputation for keeping his options open, taking action only when it is clear which way the geopolitical winds are blowing. Yesterday, he spoke up for U.S. prisoners of war: "We know in what conditions prisoners are kept by the anti-Iraq coalition, by the American side. And I hope that the Iraqi side will also respect international law concerning the treatment of prisoners of war."
Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the official USA and Canada Institute, said the development of relations between Moscow and Washington will depend on the course of the U.S. campaign. "If the Americans achieve a quick and decisive victory, then Russia will have to pin down its policy. Maybe it will continue issuing a weakened form of criticism toward America, but it will have to deal with the fact that America achieved military and political success," Kremenyuk said.
He added: "If that doesn't happen and the war drags out, Russia can try to use the occasion to prove that it saw what was coming, that it knew what would happen, that it was acting on the best intentions when it was convincing Bush not to begin the war. But one way or the other, it will likely not be necessary or gainful for Russia to worsen relations with the United States."
Kremenyuk said Putin is walking a tightrope. His loud denunciations of the war in Iraq are aimed largely for domestic consumption. Russian public and political opinion is nearly unanimous in condemnation for the U.S. campaign, which is seen as evidence of unilateral bullying on the global stage.
But Kremenyuk added that Putin is also trying to indicate to Washington that he does not want relations to irreparably sour over the issue.
In that scheme, Kremenyuk concludes, the spat over military technology sales to Iraq is part of "crisis-period" diplomacy and does not constitute a turn toward confrontation