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U.S./Russia: Relations In Question Amid Moscow's Opposition To Iraq War

Washington and London are appealing to critics of the war in Iraq not to obstruct agreements over Iraq's future. Moscow is currently leading opposition to U.S. policy over the Middle East country as increasing evidence emerges of Russia's role in providing arms, intelligence, and training to Baghdad. With analysts unanimously warning that the current Kremlin line is leading to a dead end for Russian foreign policy, are there signs of rapprochement?

Moscow, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As plans for Iraq's postwar reconstruction are set in motion, the United States and Britain are asking critics of the Iraqi war to help overcome the massive difficulties in reaching political agreement by playing a constructive role in the matter.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today aimed criticism at permanent United Nations Security Council members Russia and France, which have deflated hopes they would set aside their strident opposition to the war. He spoke to reporters at the U.S. Central Command base in Qatar: "It is a responsibility of all members of the [United Nations] Security Council, but particularly those with vetoes, not to play games but to recognize this new reality [in Iraq] and to move forward, making decisions on their merits for the benefits of the Iraqis."

While leaders of the so-called peace camp -- France, Russia, and Germany -- have dampened their antiwar rhetoric in recent weeks, Russia has led the refusal to engage in dialogue over U.S. plans for Iraq's postwar reconstruction, an issue Moscow says should be returned to the Security Council for a decision. The United States and Britain insist the UN will play a "vital" role, but not the central one.

Speaking at a conference on peace and security last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for international cooperation. "I think it is extremely important to strengthen multilateral international cooperation, which has been until now the foundation of international stability and security," he said.

But Putin's calls for a "multipolar" world are primarily seen as a means of criticizing U.S. global might.

The Russian president has in recent days kept the door open for further disagreements with Washington over Iraq, saying that in failing to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq so far, the United States had failed to meet its war objectives. "Then what was being fought for and what were the goals?" he asked.

But it is practical cooperation with Baghdad rather than rhetoric that Moscow analysts most fear will pose serious problems for U.S.-Russia relations.

U.S. troops invading Iraq were surprised by Iraqi forces' use of advanced Russian-made antitank missiles and other technology. Moscow insists it did not sell weapons to Iraq, but its assurances do not convince military experts, who point to a murky illicit arms market involving dealers in third countries that likely helped provide supplies to Baghdad in violation of UN sanctions.

Last week, RFE/RL reported from Iraq that U.S. soldiers found a letter in Baghdad from a Russian weapons firm apparently offering to sell millions of dollars' worth of conventional arms.

Over the weekend, Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" also reported evidence recovered from an intelligence service complex in Baghdad showing Russia cooperated with Baghdad on intelligence. Among the accusations is that Moscow shared eavesdropped conversations between Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and provided lists of available assassins in Europe.

The "San Francisco Chronicle" meanwhile reported evidence indicating Russia trained Iraqi intelligence agents as recently as last fall. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service has lambasted the accusations and refused to comment further.

U.S. experts are studying the evidence. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said in an interview in "Vremya novostei" published today that Washington needs to collect more information before reaching a final conclusion over the allegations.

Robert Nurick is director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. He said it is important to separate Moscow's current policy on Iraq's future from allegations of military cooperation, which could have "very serious political consequences" for U.S.-Russia relations. "The allegations in the press about arms sales and intelligence sharing are obviously potentially explosive, and if proven, could have a very large effect on the underlying political basis for serious post-Iraq rapprochement," he said.

In terms of reaching agreement over Iraq in the Security Council, Nurick said Moscow can establish a more constructive relationship with the United States -- and has indicated it wants to. But he added that Putin has yet to show signs of doing so, including during a summit last weekend with the French and German leaders in St. Petersburg.

"What I haven't seen yet is a clear recognition of what I think is going to be necessary to [establish better ties]. One of those things is to start talking directly to the United States, talking more quietly to the United States, and not leaving the impression -- as I think, unfortunately, the meeting in St. Petersburg seems to have done in Washington -- that what they're still trying to do essentially is organize and coordinate a set of positions among those who are opposed to U.S. and British policy," Nurick said.

One of the means at Moscow's disposal to help repair ties with Washington is forgiving Iraqi debt. Legislators balked at such a suggestion from the Pentagon last week, but Putin said on 11 April that Russia would consider the proposal at a June meeting of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations in France. He said the matter should be addressed through the Paris Club of creditor countries.

Iraq owes Russia approximately $8 billion, one of the key justifications Moscow cited for opposing the U.S.-led war. The Carnegie Center's Nurick said forgiving some or all of the debt would constitute a useful political gesture.

Andrei Zagorskii is deputy director of Moscow's Institute for Applied International Studies. He said Russia will likely agree to reduce its claims in accordance with decisions made in the Paris Club. "I think it's a working issue because it would be hard to expect that Moscow would receive the entire debt -- or at least a decision to honor it -- from the future Iraqi government. On the other hand, receiving even part of it -- to be decided in negotiations -- would be a plus for Russia because no one expected Saddam Hussein would repay the money. The debt has been a dead weight all these years," Zagorskii said.

Vershbow said U.S. President George Bush still plans to travel to St. Petersburg for a summit with Putin at the end of next month. Moscow is meanwhile continuing its criticism, today condemning Washington's warnings to Syria not to hide former top Iraqi officials.

Russian media also lashed out against Washington on the issue today, with the respected "Kommersant" daily saying: "Appetites grow in war. The Iraqi crisis has been transformed into a Syrian one."