Iraq proves test of US-Russia ties

In a half-hour phone call Friday, Bush failed to persuade Putin to follow Washington's lead on Iraq.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

White House efforts to woo Russian support for an American military strike against Iraq are being resisted by Moscow, turning Russia into a key dealmaker for any new United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Baghdad.

This resistance is taking US officials aback, analysts say, and could jeopardize close US-Russia ties. Even in a 30-minute phone call on Friday, Mr. Bush could not persuade Russian leader Vladimir Putin to support an attack. A terse Kremlin statement after the call made clear Russia's priority: the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq.

The disagreement centers on Baghdad's promise to admit those inspectors. While Washington has attacked this pledge as a ploy, Moscow sees potential for averting a war.

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This high-stakes diplomatic dance coincides with Russian saber-rattling against its small southern neighbor, Georgia. Mirroring language from Mr. Bush's own playbook justifying pre-emptive military strikes as a measure of self-defense, Mr. Putin is threatening to attack Georgia to rid it of Chechen separatists it calls "terrorists."

"Russia wants to show that a military operation in Iraq, without UN backing, would lead to a new model of international behavior," says Sergei Markov, head of the Center for Political Studies in Moscow. "It's the exact message: 'If you bomb Iraq, we will be free to bomb Georgia.' Russia wants the US to know it will use the same model."

The challenge from the Russians presents a stark contrast to months of increasingly warm relations between Washington and Moscow.

"So far, there has been real frustration with the Russians," says Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who now also teaches at Stanford. "Before this, the White House especially assumed that Mr. Putin is our friend, that we are allies in this common struggle, and they were somewhat surprised [the Russians are] being so wishy-washy."

Analysts dismiss talk of a US-Russia horse trade – Moscow holding out to gain a free hand in Georgia, in exchange for supporting US moves in Iraq. But the observers say Russia is ready to take advantage of the precedent set by any preemptive US strike.

Immediately after the Iraqi offer Monday, Russia said it saw no need for a new UN resolution on Iraq, until inspectors had established "the facts" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.

But the US and Britain have been pressuring the Security Council's other permanent members, including Russia, to adopt a tough new Iraq resolution demanding unfettered access for arms experts and spelling out consequences if Baghdad fails to cooperate with inspection teams.

On Saturday Iraq said it would not accept any new UN Security Council resolution that runs contrary to the agreement it had reached Monday with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Bush "fully expects" Russia to vote for a new UN resolution, says Mr. McFaul, "and if it doesn't, I do think it will be a major moment in US-Russia relations."

Even as Russia questioned the need for the new resolution, Putin last week informed the UN Security Council of the possibility that Russia might take action in Georgia.

"Russia is behaving absolutely logically," says Alexei Pushkov, member of the executive board of the Presidential Foreign Policy Council, a nongovernmental think-tank in Moscow. "Russia says that, 'Unless you have proof [of weapons of mass destruction violations], you shouldn't invade Iraq.' But everybody knows – and even the Bush administration admits – that there is proof of Chechen fighters in Georgia."

Still, differences are fundamental, experts say. "The American position is a double one," says Mr. Pushkov. "George Bush speaks about WMD in Iraq, but in fact he is after Saddam Hussein." Russia, on the other hand, would accept a "technical" solution in Georgia, even if it left [Georgian leader Eduard] Shevardnadze in power. Such a solution would be unacceptable for the US in Iraq, he says. "If Saddam Hussein admits inspectors tomorrow, then the Bush administration will say, 'No, it is not enough,' " Pushkov adds. "Nothing is enough, short of war, because the problem is regime change."

Some Russian military analysts say there may be no more than 50 "genuine Chechen terrorists" in Georgia. Hinting at Russian intentions, Russian defense chief Sergei Ivanov asked Thursday: "If we see that bandits are headed in our direction and only 10 to 15 kilometers [6 to nine miles] are left before the border, should we wait for them to cross the border, kill someone and disperse?"

"That's the real danger of what the US is doing, by setting the precedent. The Russians, they like that," says Carnegie's McFaul, who notes that the US and Russia share "traditions of intervening unilaterally," and defining their interests beyond global institutions like the UN.

"I'm worried about the US precedent," McFaul says. "I am much more worried about the Russians, roaming about the former Soviet Union, destroying 'terrorist regimes.' "

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