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Asia Times
April 9, 2003
Secret meetings precede US-Russia reconciliation
By Pavel Ivanov

On Monday US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice suddenly appeared in Moscow for an almost top-secret visit. No press conferences. No statements. Just brief meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the two Ivanovs - Sergey, minister of defense, and Igor, minister of foreign affairs. This secrecy reflects the atmosphere and circumstances in which Washington and Moscow have started mending fences badly damaged by the war in Iraq.

Prince Gorchakov, one of the greatest Russian foreign ministers of the 19th century, once said: "Secrecy in diplomacy is needed just in two cases - when you are preparing an alliance against a third party or when you simply have nothing to say". It is almost insane even to think about any "alliance against a third party" between the White House and the Kremlin after what happened to bilateral relations during the past three months. That leaves the second option, which is quite plausible.

Moscow officials have little to say to their US counterparts except for reiterating the well-known Russian position on postwar reconstruction of Iraq: all political, economic and humanitarian issues should be conducted through the United Nations, particularly the Security Council, where Russia has veto power. As of today, brave talk by Tony Blair and George W Bush notwithstanding, the US administration is quite reluctant to consider any role for the UN other than as an extension of humanitarian aid supervised by US/UK occupation forces. So, obviously, secrecy is needed as the two sides favor vastly different approaches to the problems at hand and are not ready for any compromises.

A well-informed source in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said of the Rice visit: "Certainly, nobody expected any revolutionary breakthrough agreements - it is too early to speak about agreements ... the Americans were just probing Russia's position on the issues."

But in spite of the fact that at present the sides have little to say to each other, the continuation of the US-Russian political dialogue is a positive, encouraging sign. Both sides need this dialogue, although for different reasons.

The Russian political leadership, most of all President Putin, now realize very clearly that Moscow has already lost its war regarding Iraq and it is time for damage control. Putin and his entourage understand that Russian economic interests in postwar Iraq are probably irreversibly damaged, leaving Russia no means of protecting them. However, by some humble estimates, the cost might be just US$28 billion to $30 billion. Further confrontation with Washington could cost much more in every respect - the United States is capable of inflicting massive damage on those that anger it. In particular, there are three very sensitive areas where Putin desperately needs help and support from his American friend George.

One of the main foreign policy goals of the Putin administration is Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Negotiations on the issue have been moving ahead very slowly, not because of the US position, but because of the European Union's, notably Russia's partners in the Iraqi war opposition - France and Germany, which dislike Russia's energy and industry subsidy policies. By contrast, after the US-Russia rapprochement that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Washington threw its political weight behind Moscow's bid for WTO membership, pushing forward talks that otherwise would have taken more time to realize. However, during the past two months, the White House has been mum on the issue, and the WTO-Russia negotiations are in effect stalled.

The second area of concern to Putin is Russia's foreign debt. Most of it is owed to EU members, not the United States. Over the past two years, the US used its clout in Europe to reduce Russia's outstanding debt. As a result, Moscow managed to reach very favorable agreements on debt reduction with Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy, which reduced the debt by some $10 billion. Now the Kremlin fears that the United States might withdraw its behind-the-scenes support and that it will have to face the European lenders alone.

The third very sensitive area of Russian concern is the US military presence on the territory of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In accordance with the gentlemen's agreement between the two presidents, Washington kept its military presence in Uzbekistan to the minimum necessary level required by military operations in Afghanistan - mainly small logistics and technical units. Now the Kremlin worries that its worst nightmare will come true and full-fledged US military bases may be established just few dozen miles away from Russia's soft southern underbelly.

Present-day Russia has very little leverage to influence US policies. Thus, like it or not, the Russian leadership has to resume dialogue with Bush - though Putin seems to understand very well that by doing so he is risking a political uproar on the side of opposition and essential sectors of the Russian population, which is currently in a frenzied anti-American campaign conducted by the country's mass media.

The US needs dialogue, too, although to a much lesser extent than Russia. The Bush administration has already survived some quite embarrassing and humiliating moments on the international scene created by the united efforts of France, Germany and Russia and the last thing Bush wants is to repeat this experience. So it is quite logical to split the "new entente" and bring Russia, which is definitely the weakest member, back into the US orbit.

And there is something much more important at stake for Washington in the attempted reconciliation with Moscow. Assuming that the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein is just an episode in the larger, broader war the United States is conducting against terrorism, Russia could be an instrumental and important partner in future campaigns.

The "almost top-secret visit" by Rice will likely serve as a prelude to the restoration of partnership between the two countries - likely to be confirmed when Bush (as now planned) visits Moscow next month.

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