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Putin, Bush ties expected to survive

By Alice Lagnado

MOSCOW — The budding friendship between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin is being tested by the war in Iraq, but political leaders here doubt the rupture will be permanent.

Despite a diplomatic stalemate at the U.N. Security Council last month and a high-profile exchange of accusations in recent days, several Russian politicians said they see signs that both countries are working to limit the damage.

The relationship, forged at a congenial Texas summit in November 2001, reached a low point last week when the Bush administration accused Russia of selling Baghdad defense hardware — including electronic jamming equipment, antitank missiles and night-vision goggles — that could be used against American soldiers.

Russia, in return, has issued increasingly strong condemnations of the Iraq war. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last week mocked Mr. Bush's pledge that the day of liberation for the Iraqi people was coming, and said the war threatened international stability.

Russia also has postponed parliamentary action on an arms-control treaty with the United States, protested a U.S. spy plane's flight over Georgia and accused Washington of being party to questionable deals with rogue states.

Even so, Russians believe the chill in relations is no more than a temporary setback.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a prominent Kremlin-linked political lobbyist, has described the rift as a "localized" deterioration in the relationship.

Grigory Yavlinsky, Russia's most authoritative reform politician, said over the weekend that the Bush-Putin friendship would not be shaken.

"The war in Iraq will not be the transition to a cold war between Russia and the USA., nor will it ruin the Russian-American strategic relations. This is not in our interests," he told Russian radio.

Indeed, the Russian parliament still is expected to ratify the Moscow Treaty — which will allow both sides to slash nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds — if only because Russia needs to make the cuts for economic reasons.

The United States also appears eager to limit the damage. The political leaders noted that Washington had not described the suspected sales of defense equipment as official policy, but rather accused individual firms of evading Russian export controls.

The United States said one Russian company sold at least a half-dozen devices designed to confound global positioning system gear used in planes and bombs.

Two other companies are accused of providing Iraq with several thousand night-vision goggles — devices that give U.S. forces a huge advantage in nighttime combat. They also sold a "militarily significant quantity" of antitank guided missiles, U.S. officials say.

Some Russian politicians said the American charges were intended simply to distract public attention from setbacks in the war. They also say the United States and its allies have sold military equipment to questionable regimes.

The United States "is always criticizing us, but its close economic partners supply Iran with sensitive technology," Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said last week.

The downturn in relations began in February when Russia, together with France and Germany, opposed a U.S.-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council that would have authorized the invasion of Iraq.

Despite a general understanding that Mr. Putin hopes to remain friendly with Mr. Bush, Russian officials have come out with a series of harsh public criticisms of the war.

Mr. Ivanov, in particular, has issued scathing daily critiques of the war, apparently on Mr. Putin's orders. But these are seen as at least partly designed to appease Russian voters — who overwhelmingly oppose the war — and the powerful military-security establishment that supports Mr. Putin.


See also:

Situation around Iraq

Russia - US Relations


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