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U.S.: Bush-Putin Talks Come As Moscow Appears To Be Drawing Closer To Washington On Key Issues

Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to hold a series of meetings with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David near Washington starting today. Iraq, Iran, the Mideast, and bilateral cooperation in the energy sector are likely to top the agenda.

Prague, 26 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin wraps up his third visit to the United States with a series of informal meetings today and tomorrow with U.S. President George W. Bush at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

The two leaders' last get-together -- at the start of June in St. Petersburg -- was already billed as the "reconciliation" summit, as the two countries tried to patch up strained relations in the wake of the Iraq war. In their post-summit news conference, Bush and Putin both emphasized that the strategic partnership between the United States and Russia remained healthy despite disagreement over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and continued sparring over Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran. Putin said bilateral ties had emerged "stronger" than the events that had tested them.

Nearly four months later, differences over Iraq and Iran continue to dog bilateral ties, but there have been recent indications that Moscow may be drawing closer to Washington on the two key issues. Observers say Iran and Iraq will be among the central issues discussed during the Bush-Putin meeting, in addition to bilateral cooperation in the oil and gas sector.

The U.S. administration is seeking Russia's support for a draft resolution it has put forward at the UN Security Council that would authorize a multinational force in Iraq and share the financial burden of reconstruction.

Whether the resolution will be submitted to an actual vote and whether Moscow will side with the U.S. remains hard to predict. But one Russian foreign policy expert, Kimberly Marten of New York's Columbia University, tells RFE/RL that comments made this week by Putin suggest Russia is considering lending the U.S. some much-needed help on the ground in Iraq. More details could come out during the Bush-Putin talks.

"I think that one of the most important, concrete results that's likely to emerge is that Putin is eager to have a Russian military presence involved in peacekeeping operations in Iraq, which is something that meets his national interest, because it allows Russia to re-establish contacts in the region that it doesn't have unless it is cooperating with the United States," Marten said. "And a very stunning set of comments has emerged over the last couple of days, where Putin has actually said that he would be happy to have Russian troops serve under U.S. command. You may remember that in the Kosovo peacekeeping operations, that was something which was a big area of conflict between the two countries."

Nicholas Redman of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London tells RFE/RL that any deal will be the result of intense negotiation and is likely to include economic benefits for Russian oil companies.

"I think particularly with the negotiations on a UN resolution, it would certainly not be surprising if -- as quid pro quo -- the Russian firms, particularly those holding contracts in pre-war Iraq, were invited back in some form. I don't think necessarily they would be reinstated with the contracts as they were. But that might not be a bad thing for Russian firms. I think some of them would be quite eager," Redman said.

Reports yesterday that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may have uncovered further traces of enriched uranium in Iran are also likely to prompt Bush to renew his call for Russia to curb its nuclear cooperation with Tehran.

Bush yesterday told reporters that he will raise the issue during his talks with Putin. He said Tehran faces what he called "universal condemnation" if it keeps pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Iran denies that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Russia find itself in a bind with Iran, says Redman. On the one hand, the Putin administration wants to complete the lucrative contract for the Bushehr nuclear power plant it is building for Iran, but it shares U.S. concerns about nuclear proliferation.

"There's no way Russia wants to lose its links with Iran. There's no way it wants to lose the trade. But at the same time, Putin is going to be very clear that there's no interest in nuclear proliferation to Iran. And so the question is whether [Putin] can strike a balance, whether he can push the Iranians very slowly into compliance with the IAEA without losing the link or losing the trade, if possible," Redman says.

But Moscow-based political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky tells RFE/RL there are indications that Russia has been drawing closer to the U.S. position in recent weeks.

"Iran's stubborn, inflexible and now clear drive to acquire nuclear weapons is beginning to worry Russia and to draw [the United States and Russia] together. For example, Russia has now made it clear it is prepared to stop fuel deliveries to the Bushehr reactor if Iran does not sign an agreement on returning spent nuclear fuel. And Russia has also assumed a more flexible attitude on the issue of Iran signing an additional protocol on inspections with the IAEA. For now, Russia has not made completion of the Bushehr reactor conditional on Tehran's signature, but it has added its voice to others calling on Iran to sign the protocol," Piontkovsky says.

Kimberly Martin in New York agrees. She notes that Tehran faces a deadline from the IAEA to fully disclose the extent of its nuclear activities. Failure to comply could lead to action by the UN Security Council, in which case Russia would be hard-pressed not to freeze its deal with Tehran.

"As you know, Iran is now facing a deadline of October 31. And at that point, if the IAEA is not satisfied, there's a possibility of the UN Security Council imposing sanctions against Iran. At that point, Russia would have to take a stand -- either on behalf of the sanctions or against the sanctions. And I would guess, based on the direction that things are going, that it is unlikely to veto sanctions against Iran if it appears that the IAEA report is so strongly against Iranian intentions," Martin said.

Overall, says Andrei Piontkovsky, the ever-pragmatic Putin remains committed to a strategic alliance with the United States, because he and his advisers believe this dovetails with Russia's principal foreign policy and economic interests.

"If you take a broader strategic perspective, Russia and the United States have an objective interest in strategic cooperation because most of the conflicts of the 21st century are going to take place along Russia's southern border -- the Middle East and Central Asia, and let's not forget Northeast Asia and the problem of China's growing power. Awareness of this will draw the U.S. and Russia closer together. So I think Putin's understanding of these long-term mutual strategic interests will prevail over disagreements over specific details," Piontkovsky said.

In other words, when the talk turns to oil and gas sales, Iran and Iraq, expect Moscow to drift closer to Washington and further from Paris, despite the friendly exchanges during the latest meeting of the Russian-German-French "troika" in New York this week.