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Russia: Putin's Signal Of Support For U.S.-Led Multinational Iraq Force An 'Important Favor' For Bush

Washington has signaled it is ready to begin negotiations in the United Nations Security Council to authorize a multinational force under U.S. command. But the U.S. may have to mend fences with some fellow council members who opposed the war in Iraq. Ironically, it is one of the staunchest critics of the U.S. invasion, Russia, that is bolstering Washington's hope for success. In an unexpected policy turnaround during the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he supported the idea of a U.S.-led international force in Iraq. RFE/RL speaks to a leading Russian analyst about the Kremlin's new stance.

Prague, 3 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Amid continuing terror attacks and mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq, it was a rare moment of good news for U.S. President George W. Bush. His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, announced during the weekend he would support a multinational force in Iraq -- even one under U.S. command.

Speaking at a press conference in Italy on 30 August, Putin said, "we don't see anything wrong" with the possible participation of international forces in Iraq under U.S. command. The Russian president stressed, however, that such a force must be authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

Russia, together with fellow permanent council members Germany and France, formed a staunch axis of opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Putin's new turnaround may prove valuable to the U.S. as it moves to win broader international backing for its post-Saddam Hussein occupation. A draft resolution on a multinational force may be presented to the Security Council by the end of this week.

Viktor Kremenyuk is deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute, a Moscow-based foreign-policy think tank. He told RFE/RLthat Putin has done Bush an "important favor," and that a UN-authorized force could go a long way toward alleviating Washington's burden in Iraq.

"Maybe [the U.S.] is counting on the hope that the degree of resistance coming from the Iraqis will diminish substantially, because the UN is associated with the idea of aggression to a lesser degree than the Americans and their troops. And so it would be possible to have fewer victims, fewer [military] casualties, and -- something that Bush is very interested in, in light of his re-election campaign -- less criticism of U.S. policy," Kremenyuk said.

Putin's remarks come just weeks ahead of a scheduled summit meeting between the two presidents. Kremenyuk said a successful summit will reflect well not only on Bush, but also on Putin, who hopes to solidify his control of the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) in parliamentary elections this December, and will himself run for re-election next March.

But the strain of the Iraqi crisis will be hard for Washington and Moscow to overcome. Kremenyuk said a gesture of personal support may be the best way for Putin to get his relations with Bush back on track. "Relations between Russia and the United States aren't really based very much on existing agreements, [common] organs, or bilateral mechanisms, but on the personal friendship of the two presidents," he said. "Because of this, Russia's position during the [Iraq] crisis means [this relationship] could be lost. Bush took Russia's position very much to heart, and he practically hasn't forgiven Putin for it."

It is not the first time Russia has appeared to soften its stance on Iraq. Officials in Moscow had sometimes muted their criticism of the U.S. posture -- a move analysts say was meant to drum up Washington's support for the restitution of Russia's financial interests in prewar Iraq. In addition to a pending $6 billion oil contract, Russia was also hoping to collect on Iraq's $8 billion Soviet-era debt.

Now, Kremenyuk said, Putin's nod to a U.S.-led multinational force may mean that Russia has given up hope of seeing its financial claims honored. "Russia lost everything it had in Iraq -- the debt incurred by the [former] Iraqi regime, the prospect of contracts that were promised. All that is lost. I dont think anyone will restitute anything," he said. "I think Moscow knows this, and thats why they dont mention it."

Energy giant LUKoil, which heads the Russian consortium waiting to activate its contracts in Iraq, appears to be ready to concede defeat. The company's vice president, Leonid Fedun, said the U.S. has "explained the reasons" why Russia cannot proceed with extraction projects on Iraq's West Kurna oil field. Fedun added that the consortium's West Kurna contract included a force majeure "war and occupation" clause. Such a clause would presumably nullify the contract.