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Moscow Times
April 8, 2003
Rice Reassures Putin Over U.S.-Russian Ties
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Staff Writer

U.S. President George W. Bush's national security adviser met with President Vladimir Putin on Monday and delivered a message from her boss saying that the United States is committed to continued partnership with Russia despite the very serious disagreements over Iraq, a senior U.S. diplomat said.

Condoleezza Rice's visit, which the diplomat said was scheduled last week, coincided with the firing on a Russian diplomatic convoy outside of Baghdad on Sunday. Even though there has been no confirmation that U.S. troops were to blame, the incident had the potential to sour efforts by both countries to mend relations, but Russia did not appear to allow this to happen.

Rice also met with presidential chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Her meeting with Putin was not announced until late in the afternoon, when Interfax reported it, citing Putin's spokesman, Alexei Gromov.

The U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the foreign and defense ministers were present during the hourlong meeting with Putin.

Following the meeting with Foreign Minister Ivanov, Rice said only that she had had a "very good" conversation and declined to answer questions from reporters.

Later in the day, the U.S. diplomat said both sides seemed "very pleased" with the talks, which were "useful in keeping up the dialogue on our relationship."

Gromov said Russia had confirmed its position on Iraq and said the issue of a postwar settlement should be returned to the United Nations as soon as possible, Interfax reported. The U.S. diplomat said Rice had recognized that the UN and other international bodies will have roles to play, but said the leading role immediately after hostilities end will be reserved for the U.S.-led coalition.

Kommersant reported on Monday, citing an unidentified source in the U.S. State Department, that Rice was to discuss Russia's possible role in postwar Iraq, including its role in oil projects. The U.S. diplomat would not comment on the details, but said that Rice discussed "the need to work to find a practical solution to the many issues relating both to the humanitarian aspects and to the broader reconstruction of the country."

In the past week, Putin has toned down his criticism of the war, and both he and Bush have made overtures toward restoring their relationship.

Even though the Russian ambassador to Iraq directly blamed U.S. forces for the attack on his convoy, the official reaction was rather reserved. The U.S. diplomat said the issue was discussed Monday "in a calm and non-emotional manner." Gromov said Russia had expressed "serious concern" over the incident.

The U.S. diplomat said the U.S. accusations that Russia was selling night-vision and other military equipment to Iraq, perhaps through a third party, were raised during Rice's working lunch with Defense Minister Ivanov.

"We still have concerns and the discussions will continue, but I think that we are encouraged that the issue is getting much more high level attention now," the diplomat said.

The U.S. military on Monday reported finding Russian-made night-vision goggles in Iraq. The Lytkarino Optical Glass Factory near Moscow, which manufactured the goggles, denied shipping them to Iraq and said it would have required Defense Ministry permission to do so, Itar-Tass reported, citing the factory's technical director, Viktor Rumyantsev. But such goggles are readily available in hunting stores around Russia and are said not to be suitable for military use.

Rice spent twice as much time with Voloshin than with any other official -- about two hours, the U.S. diplomat said. Voloshin, who is viewed in Washington as having played a key role in Putin's turn toward the West following the Sept. 11 attacks, was in Washington just prior to the beginning of the Iraq operation in what was seen as an attempt to secure Russia's place in the equation.

Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, said Rice's visit was a sign that the United States is not writing off Russia as a partner and that Russian interests in Iraq will be respected.

"Of course, America is interested in Russia's support or at least favorable neutrality," Volk said in a telephone interview. "The war did not bring as fast a result as had been expected and, compared to the radical, although also toned down, position of West European countries, Russia appears as a more reasonable partner."

In such a situation, the evacuation of Russian diplomats from Baghdad was taking place at the worst possible time and put the convoy at high risk -- so much so in fact that it could appear to have been a provocation on the part of opponents of improvement in Russian-U.S. relations, Volk said.

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