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Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 25, 2003

Bush Runs into the Moscow Fronde for the First Time

By Yulia Petrovskaya

The Presidents of the United States and Russia spoke by telephone on Monday night. A Kremlin press release says: "During an exchange of opinions on the situation related to the Iraq crisis, the Russian President emphasized the humanitarian consequences of the military action. After reiterating his previously position on regulation of the situation in Iraq, President Putin stressed the need to avert a humanitarian disaster in the region. The heads of state also discussed a number of current issues in bilateral relations."

These current issues included "the concern of the United States about Russian companies supplying Iraq with products designated for military use, including banned equipment," as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at a press conference.

The telephone conversation took place at the initiative of President Bush; according to Associated Press reports, he "picked up the phone to rebuke his Russian counterpart for selling arms to Iraq." Associated Press also described the conversation as "tense".

Putin's Press Secretary Alexei Gromov told RIA-Novosti that the President had described US State Department reports of alleged military supplies as lacking in evidence. Putin told Bush that these claims "can damage relations between our two countries". Gromov noted: "Moreover, in return we asked analogous questions about the American side. However, no answers have been received as yet."

Meanwhile, the Americans are not ready to accept Moscow's verbal assurances that there has been no cooperation with Iraq in breach of UN sanctions. Citing an anonymous source, Reuters reported that the US had gone public with its accusations against Moscow, after receiving evidence that there were Russian specialists in Baghdad, who were helping the Iraqis use radio-electronic military equipment against the Anglo-American coalition. Russian firms are also accused of supplying night-vision goggles and antitank guided missiles.

Many doubts are being expressed about whether America's true "concerns" relate to any military equipment deliveries which may or may not have taken place. What is the real source of this most recent tension in Russian-US relations, and what are the implications of the military equipment story for Moscow? We asked some experts.

Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of the Presidium, The Foreign and Security Policy Council

This is a display of irritation by the Americans, who had expected Russia to be more obedient. However, the Americans are even more irritated by the fact that they are starting to fail everywhere, in all areas - and because the military operation appears not to be going according to plan. So the United States is putting pressure on everyone, trying to ensure for itself the best possible political backdrop. However, it continues to deteriorate.

This exchange of barbed remarks could indeed lead to a chill in Russian-US relations. And at that point, the situation gets out of control, to some extent; even though the Russian government does not want any kind of chill, as far as I'm aware. On the contrary, while condemning the current actions of the United States, our government actually wants to help the Americans end this conflict in a way that enables them to save face. Even though it's already apparent that the US has lost the conflict at the media and information level, and is losing it at the political level. Even a military victory might not help.

Alexander Ruhr, Director, Russia and CIS Programmes, German Foreign Policy Council, Berlin.

If Bush goes as far as having such a telephone conversation with Putin, that means things are serious. According to some reports, America has been using its channels to put pressure on the Russian government for the past six months, demanding a halt to certain sales of weapons to Iraq by Russian private companies.

The fact that Bush has gone public could mean that the Americans are very nervous, as they are not seeing any major achievements in terms of moving forward in Iraq. Indeed, as the Russian side says, Washington may now be seeking a scapegoat. Washington may find it in Russia today, in Germany tomorrow, and in France the day after that. On the other hand, we cannot rule out that the Russian government doesn't know what is going on. Putin himself understands that everything must be verified. He is not 100% informed about what private companies are doing, especially in such a complex sector as arms trade.

Georges Le Guelt, Research Director, the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Paris

I believe the Americans have a grudge against all nations preventing them from passing a second resolution on Iraq at the UN Security Council. Thus, accusations from the American President and media against certain Russian, Chinese, and French companies are a characteristic phenomenon. Of course, in my view, this does not justify the actions of those firms which actually sold forbidden equipment to Iraq.

Characteristically, the accusations were made via the media, not via diplomatic channels. This is attributable to a need to show the American people that those three countries (Russia, France, and China) are unreliable. But I think this is a temporary crisis. The United States is encountering protests worldwide. Washington realizes that this "United States versus the rest of the world" game cannot continue; especially if the US runs into difficulties in Iraq or even in the whole Middle East.

In any case, it is not in the interests of the United States to exacerbate differences with Moscow. In the long term, the common interests between Russia and the US, as well as between France and the US, will prevail.

Gleb Pavlovsky, Head of the Effective Policy Foundation

This deterioration in relations is localized. Outside this one issue, there is no deterioration in relations, nor even any fundamental change in relations. A localized rift between Russia and the US might have serious consequences only if the ideology of unilateral changes to the world order is accepted. Currently, this is only a form of military propaganda. If it disappears with the end of the war in Iraq, the rift will also disappear. But if Bush goes further, insisting on his right to redraw the map of the world, then this problem might be exacerbated, of course.

Alexei Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the Defence Committee of the State Duma of the Russian Federation

The whole point is that the operation is not going as the Americans thought it would. In the military sense, it is still hard to say; but in political terms, this is already obvious. Steadfast resistance to the Americans in the UN Security Council by Russia and France deprived the military operation of legitimacy, and thus of broad international support. Actually, this circumstance v overlooked by the media, for some reason - is one reason why the Iraqis are fighting back so fiercely. They know quite well that there is limited international support for this aggression, which gives them added strength and determination. If there were a united international front, as in 1991, everything would be different. The growing difficulties are making the Americans irritable and dissatisfied. Consequently they have started looking for someone to blame


See also:

Situation Around Iraq

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 25, 2003

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