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World leaders seek Putin's support
By Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Who is the superpower leader that the major nations of the world rush to consult as the shadows of terrorism and war again threaten the world? If you answered "George W. Bush," guess again. Vladimir Putin of Russia is the steady rock in stormy times to whom other world leaders are clinging.

The taciturn but shrewd president of Russia appears to be everywhere these days. He is threatening to veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution that the United States may seek to justify launching a war on Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany and President Jacques Chirac of France make no secret that they respect him and hold him in far greater personal regard than they do President Bush.

In the past week alone, Germany and France have both defied the United States to split the NATO alliance by refusing to approve alliance moves to protect and aid Turkey if it is drawn into any U.S. war on Iraq. By contrast, both nations' leaders have been meeting with Putin and carefully coordinating their opposition such a war with him.

On Thursday, the French newspaper Le Telegramme published an interview with Putin in which he threatened to use Russia's veto as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to block any U.N. go-ahead for U.S. military action against Iraq.

"If it is necessary we will use our veto," the Russian leader said. " ... Unilateral recourse to force would be unacceptable."

Earlier this week, Russia won the unprecedented diplomatic victory of having France and Germany, America's two main continental European allies, sign a written joint declaration with Russia during his visit to Paris to meet with Chirac Monday calling for everything possible to be done to get Iraq to disarm peacefully without recourse to war.

And even China, which quietly remains Russia's most important global strategic partner through their joint leadership of the new Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in June 2001, came out in warm support of the Russian-French-German declaration.

That means that Russia now actually has a majority of the five veto-welding members of the 15-nation Security Council on its side, as France and China have vetoes too. The United States can only count on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support it there. And he is increasingly embattled on the home front with opinion polls showing the British people opposing U.S. war on Iraq by as much as 90 percent to 10 percent.

Putin's rising clout extends far beyond Western Europe. Middle East intelligence sources say even Saudi Arabia, a crucial and loyal U.S. ally throughout the Cold War, is now eagerly courting Putin and seeking to increase Saudi influence in Moscow. The Saudi motive is very clear-cut, these sources say. They fear that after Saddam is toppled, the Pentagon civilian hawks who have pushed that policy will seek to topple them and partition their kingdom next.

The Saudis are hardly paranoid. Last year, the Pentagon's advisory Policy Review Board invited a Rand Corporation analyst and ex-disciple of Lyndon LaRouche to address them on the need to partition Saudi Arabia and erect a pro-U.S. Shiite democracy in its oil rich Eastern Province instead.

Putin is now even being courted by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, even though Russia has been the main ally, protector and arms supplier of Pakistan's arch-enemy Russia for the past four decades. Also last week, Musharraf visited Moscow and asked Putin to play peacemaker between the two nuclear-armed giants of South Asia.

"President Putin is the best-placed person ... to play a role in improving relations with India," Musharraf told reporters in Moscow.

These comments were a stunning slap in the face for the United States, Pakistan's traditional ally and protector, especially as the Bush administration relied heavily on Pakistan's cooperation in its successful campaign to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001. Indeed, Russia's diplomatic prestige and influence in both Delhi and Islamabad now appear to be greater than at any time since late Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin played peacemaker between the two nations after their war in the mid-1960s.

Just as Henry Kissinger was able to use America's close relationship with Israel as a lever to gain influence among Arab nations when he was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, so Putin now looks likely to be able to leverage Russia's traditional close alliance with India into boosting his ties with Pakistan as well. For the Indians certainly did not appear to take umbrage at the success of Musharraf's visit to Moscow and may even have welcomed it. The day after Musharraf's comments, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee discussed the visit at length in a long and friendly telephone call with Putin.

Russia's blossoming ties with the nations of Western Europe and South Asia have not come at the expense of its traditional allies and clients in the Middle East. Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation continues to move quietly, remorselessly but smoothly ahead. Russian relations with Iraq also remain good.

And although Russian military forces continue to wage a fierce struggle with Chechen Muslim guerrillas in Chechnya, there is no indication that the al Qaida terrorist organization regards Russia as a prime target anything near comparable to the hatred it nurses for "the Great Satan," the United States.

What is the most respected and influential superpower in the world? From China and India to Germany and France, major nations are acting as if it is Russia, not the United States.

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