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Putin makes high-stakes gambit with pro-US shift on Iraq
January 29, 2003

President Vladimir Putin risks disrupting Russia's standing in the Arab world and oil interests in Iraq by throwing his lot in too hastily with Washington against old ally Baghdad, analysts warn.

Putin marked a major reversal in Russian policy by announcing Tuesday just hours ahead of US President George W. Bush's State of the Union address that Moscow would toughen its line on Iraq should Baghdad fail to come clean on its weapons program.

He also admitted the Kremlin did not want a confrontation with Washington over Iraq -- a Soviet-era ally where Russia has massive oil investments -- in a comment that prompted the influential Kommersant business daily to trumpet that "America is more important (to Russia) than Iraq."

But a group of top-notch political commentators gathered for a Kremlin-sponsored roundtable said Putin must be much more tactical in his approach. They said Russia had more to gain by keeping Washington guessing about its global policies -- but still come out on the side of the United States when the time is right.

They stressed this diplomatic manoeuvring could assure that Russia keeps its oil interests in Iraq while keeping its voice intact as a potential counter-balance to the United States in the Arab world.

"We have no real strategy concerning Iraq. All we have are tactical interests. It would be wise -- once the Iraqi campaign begins -- to express outrage against first the US bombings, and then the Iraqis," said former Nezavisimaya Gazeta editor and influential Moscow commentator Vitaly Tretyakov.

"Of course, this is very cynical approach, but it is in Russia's strategic interest to have this war drag on as long as possible, for the US to get bogged down," he said.

"But we do have to come out on the winning side at the right time."

Meanwhile others said that a "silent anti-US coalition" was taking shape around the world which is now comprised of both European powers along with China and most of the Arab world.

The analysts said Russia should use this coalition to its advantage by adopting it as a counterweight that forces the United States to take other parties' interest in the campaign.

"Russia has to be tactical -- it has to forge alternating alliances with both Washington, and the silent anti-US coalition," said Sergei Markov of the Institute of Political Studies.

Moscow's initial reaction to Bush's speech was probably a disappointment to the advisers.

The foreign ministry promised to listen "attentively" to Washington's new evidence against Iraq at the UN Security Council session scheduled by Bush for Wednesday.

"We support the idea that to fight terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction and other threats to global security, the entire international community must unite its efforts decisively," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said.

The analysts urged Putin to sit on the fence as long as possible in order to ensure that Washington respects Moscow's position and backs its interest on issues like control -- and future volumes of exports -- of Iraqi oil.

"Russia's main strategic goal is to come out (in support of the war) and appear like the victor at just the right time," said Fond Politika policy institute president Vyacheslav Nikonov.

"Yesterday, Putin opened the door for Russia joining the coalition. But we do not have much time -- it will be too late (to join the US coalition) once the bombs start falling on Baghdad," Nikonov cautioned.

Added former deputy foreign minister Anatoly Adamishin: "It is incredibly important to keep up our good relations with Bush, especially since he views everything as either black or white.

"We should not burn our bridges should the US decide against going to the UN Security Council (for a second vote on Iraq), since Iraq is clearly not the last issue Washington is going to deal with, and we have to keep our diplomatic standing."

Russia has adamantly urged Washington to funnel all actions concerning Baghdad through the Council -- where it has veto power and which remains as one of Russia's main forms of influence in international affairs.

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