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Iraq Issue Poisons US-Russian Relations - 2003-03-19

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have vowed to keep talking, as the United States readies to launch a war against Iraq, a move long opposed by Moscow. Both leaders have expressed the hope that their disagreement over Iraq will not side-track what had been a flourishing bilateral relationship.

President Putin made few public comments on Iraq, almost to the end of the diplomatic process, allowing his foreign minister and other officials to express Moscow's extreme dissatisfaction with the U.S. position.

But in the crucial hours before President Bush issued his final ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, to leave Baghdad or face war, President Putin spoke out. He said war against Iraq would be a serious mistake, fraught with the gravest consequences for Iraq and global security as a whole.

One day later President Putin took a softer tone. In a telephone conversation with President Bush late Tuesday, Mr. Putin called the U.S. decision "regrettable," but agreed with Mr. Bush that the U.S.-Russian relationship must not suffer long-term damage as a result.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also said the two countries will try not to let this dispute hurt their growing relationship.

"They agree about the threats in the region, but it is no secret that they don't see eye-to-eye on whether the use of force is a required remedy to make Saddam Hussein disarm," he said. "But the two of them in the phone call did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russian relations and both expressed confidence that would indeed happen."

There are indications that will take some effort.

Tuesday, the lower house of parliament, the Duma, postponed indefinitely a vote on ratification of a landmark arms reduction treaty ratified earlier by the United States.

Officials indicated the dispute over Iraq made this a bad time for Russia to commit to arms reduction.

For the deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitry Trenin, that is just one example of what he expects to be far more political "fall-out" to come.

"I see the relationship going downhill as a result of what has happened over the past few weeks," he said. "I would also add that the mainstay of the relationship since September 11 has been the unusually warm, incredibly good relationship between Presidents Bush and Putin. That relationship I think has been severely damaged. I do not think it will be restored to its former splendor."

Mr. Trenin added that even when the Bush-Putin relationship was flourishing, there was relatively little that indicated the same kind of closeness beneath the level of the two heads of state. Borrowing from an American phrase, Mr. Trenin proclaims that the Bush-Putin "honeymoon" is over.

Independent analyst Pavel Felgenhauer agrees. "President Bush maybe will have to answer what the heck he saw in Putin's eyes, because when push came to shove, Putin, over Iraq, did not support him [Bush]," he said.

Mr. Felgenhauer is referring to the well-reported quote following the first summit between Presidents Bush and Putin, in which Mr. Bush said he looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and saw his soul. Mr. Bush went on to say that "Vladimir," as he called him, was his friend and was a man he thought the United States could work with.

For a time during the diplomatic dispute over Iraq it appeared that President Putin's biggest worry was going to be whether to veto a U.S.-backed security council resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. President Putin was spared the difficult decision when U.S., British, and Spanish officials decided not to call for a vote on the resolution after failing to secure enough support for its passage.

But these days, analyst Felgenhauer says President Putin has a far more serious problem; how much his opposition to the U.S. position over Iraq is going to cost him in terms of future areas of bilateral cooperation.

Mr. Felgenhauer believes at least part of the answer will soon be known. He says the United States and Russia have to face the problem of nuclear proliferation in Iran.

He notes that Iran's controversial Bushehr nuclear reactor is due to become operational in less than a year. Mr. Felgenhauer says at that time, if not before, Russia's assistance to Iran on the project could again be called into question.

"Russia would have a much stronger arguing position if it supported the United States on Iraq," he pointed out. "Now our position is weak and it will be very hard for us to argue in Washington that we will control the Iranians and what we transfer to them [to] see it does not go to any harm."

U.S. officials fear Tehran might use the project to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has said its program is for peaceful purposes only. And Russian officials have given similar assurances.

The deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitry Trenin, agrees Iran will likely be the next testing ground for the future status of U.S.-Russian relations.

But for Mr. Trenin, beyond Iraq and Iran, there is a bigger question, at least for Russia.

"A lot of the political class in this country is still reeling at the loss of Russia's superpower status and to them, Iraq, it is not so much about America using force against a third country, it is about Russia's impotence to weigh-in in a serious and decisive way on international developments," he said. "And that is something that a lot of people are not willing to accept yet."

Mr. Trenin predicts rising anti-American sentiment in Russia as a result of the U.S. decision to abandon diplomacy on Iraq and move toward war. Analysts say that will make it even more difficult for President Putin to try to mend relations with the United States, particularly with Russian parliamentary elections coming up.