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The Moscow Times, March 26, 2003

Kremlin Fires Back at Bush

By Simon Saradzhyan and Oksana Yablokova

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 Gromov.

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 to Putin.

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 weapons.

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 Carnegie Center.

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 coalition.

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.


See also:

the original at

Situation Around Iraq

The Moscow Times, March 26, 2003

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