| The Kremlin fired a new salvo in the battle of words
between Moscow and Washington over Iraq on Tuesday, insisting that
it was President Vladimir Putin rather than his U.S. counterpart
who had initiated the discussion of alleged sales of Russian defense
equipment to Iraq during their last phone conversation.
The U.S. administration fired this week's first shot when White
House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced Monday evening that President
George Bush had called Putin earlier in the day to complain about
alleged sales of Russian-made GPS jamming devices, night-vision
goggles and anti-tank missiles to Baghdad in violation of the
international arms embargo.
The Kremlin initially responded by posting a three-sentence statement
on its web site Monday evening saying that the two leaders had
conversed and that Putin had expressed his concern to Bush over
the humanitarian consequences of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
On Tuesday morning, however, Putin's press secretary Alexei Gromov
issued a separate statement in which he insisted that it was Putin
himself who had brought up the allegations during the phone conversation.
Putin told Bush that Russian authorities have repeatedly "supplied
information on the absence of such supplies," according to
After denying the allegations, first reported Sunday in The Washington
Post, Putin launched a verbal counteroffensive and expressed his
worry to Bush that "the discussion concerns unproved, public
declarations that can damage relations between the two countries,"
Gromov's statement said.
"Moreover, in reply, the American side was addressed with
questions on analogous problems, which have not been answered
yet," it said.
In his statement, Gromov did not elaborate on what these "analogous
problems" were, although just hours earlier, Nuclear Power
Minister Alexander Rumyantsev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov
had teamed up to express concern over the alleged sale of nuclear
equipment to Iran by a West European company.
Speaking to reporters at Russia's prime nuclear weapons research
center in Saratov, Ivanov and Rumyantsev pointed the finger at
Urenco, a British-Dutch consortium that reportedly supplied centrifuges
to Iran that could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
The allegations that three Russian companies had supplied defense
equipment to Iraq first appeared in The Post on Sunday. The newspaper
quoted Bush administration sources as saying that the Instrument
Design Bureau of Tula and Aviakonversia of Moscow have supplied
anti-tank missiles and jamming equipment, respectively.
White House spokesman Fleischer added fuel to the fire by repeating
these allegations and demanding that Russian authorities put an
end to the alleged sales. According to Fleischer's account of
Monday's conversation, Bush expressed his concern over the sales
After seeing news agencies lead their reports of the conversation
with the White House's version, the Kremlin decided to expand
on its initial account of the conversation. In an effort to win
broader coverage of Gromov's statement, Kremlin spokesmen took
the unusual step of calling news agencies Tuesday to dictate Gromov's
statement rather than faxing it and posting it on the Kremlin's
web site as is usually done, The Associated Press reported.
Even though the two presidents have regularly discussed Iraq
in recent weeks, Monday's trading of barbs was the first time
that Bush and Putin have allowed their official spokesmen to release
details of their talks.
Russian newspapers, which have been critical of the U.S.-led
military operation, have portrayed the verbal exchanges between
U.S. and Russian officials as a sign that relations are becoming
seriously strained. Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Tuesday said it was
reminiscent of the Cold War and warned that Russia would suffer
more if relations reached the freezing point.
The decision by Bush and Putin to let their differences spill
all over the press demonstrates how strained U.S.-Russian relations
have become over Iraq, political observers said.
"The mere fact of the publication of the accusations means
that the ties have become less honeylike," said Dmitry Trenin,
deputy head of the Moscow Carnegie Center.
The airing of the defense sales accusations indicates that the
United States is trying to find a scapegoat for its military setbacks
in Iraq, according to Alexei
Arbatov, deputy head of the State Duma's defense committee
and member of the liberal Yabloko faction.
"After five days of war it has become clear that the U.S.
is losing the war politically. The more difficulties the U.S.
encounters in Iraq the more inclined it will be to look for someone
to blame," Arbatov said at a news conference.
"In this situation, the U.S. will be more pressing with
its demands for support from Russia and Europe."
Arbatov predicted that U.S.-Russian ties will deteriorate as
the war unfolds in Iraq and the conflict may lead to concrete
steps, such as suspension of U.S.-funded programs to safely dispose
of Russia's excess nuclear materials and to safeguard nuclear
Should the tensions take an ugly turn Russia may lose a good
deal of U.S. support for its domestic reforms, while the United
States may lose a key partner in its anti-terrorist coalition,
according to Trenin.
The honeymoon in U.S.-Russian relations began after Moscow supported
Washington in the aftermath of 9/11 and lasted thanks to friendly
relations between Bush and Putin until the Iraqi crisis came to
a head, Trenin said.
Interestingly, the Bush administration lodged an official complaint
over the alleged sales of GPS jammers, nighttime vision goggles
and missiles back in September, according to the Post. Back then,
however, relations between Russia and the United States were still
constructive, if not rosy, and this was, perhaps, the reason the
U.S. side did not leak the complaint to the press.
Once Russia toughened its stance over Iraq, however, the White
House decided to "punish" the Kremlin as it punished
Ukraine by slapping on sanctions over alleged sales of Kolchuga
radar equipment to Iraq, according to Alexander Pikayev of the
Indeed, the alleged Kolchuga sales occurred in the summer of
2000, whereas the White House did not go public with the accusations
until the fall of 2002 when U.S.-Ukrainian relations were strained.
Relations have normalized since then, however, with Ukraine even
contributing a chemical warfare protection battalion to the U.S.-led
Russia's public protests over flights of U.S. U-2 spy planes
near Russia's border with Georgia last week could have factored
into the White House's decision to publicize the alleged sales
of GPS jammers and other equipment.
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