May 17, 2003
Eye to eye with Russia
BECAUSE THE United States and Russia need to cooperate with each other on several important issues, it is reassuring that after Secretary of State Colin Powell's talks in Moscow Wednesday with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, both sides acknowledged a turn to pragmatism. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, influential factions in both Washington and Moscow dabbled in doctrinal positions. An old guard in the Kremlin was pushing Putin toward a dogmatic defense of the concept of a multipolar world.
No less ideological was the penchant of highly placed conservatives and neoconservatives in the Bush administration to rule out protracted diplomatic haggling, whether at the United Nations or with recalcitrant governments in Moscow, Paris, and Berlin.
Now that war has swept away Saddam Hussein's vicious dictatorship, American and Russian policy makers confront a very different set of circumstances. Both sides would be wise to recognize their mutual dependence and act accordingly.
Washington needs Russia's cooperation not only for the rehabilitation of Iraq in the postwar period but also to stem nuclear proliferation in Iran and the Korean peninsula. And as the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia illustrate, there is as much need as ever for US-Russian collaboration in the fight against Al Qaeda's terrorist network.
In Moscow, this is the moment for Putin to heed those lucid realists who had tried to warn him that his previous policy of seeking to protect old Soviet investments in Saddam's regime would only put those investments at risk while casting a pall over Russia's relations with the United States.
So it was a promising sign this week that key Russian officials commenting on Powell's visit to Moscow spoke overtly about practical matters -- the $8 billion in Iraqi debts the Kremlin wants to collect someday; the $4 billion in contracts Russian firms hold under the UN oil-for-food program; and the contracts Russian oil companies signed with Saddam's regime for the exploitation of oil fields that could yield scores of billions of petrodollars.
''Powell finally uttered what Russian policy makers have wanted to hear from the Bush administration all along,'' an editorial in the Moscow Times said of Powell's public assurance that ''the new Iraqi government will take full aebts to Russia.'' And a deputy foreign minister responsible for Iraq, Yury Fedotov, made the crucial admission that Russian oil deals were not done through competitive bidding but as Saddam's way of buying political support from the Kremlin.
Unseemly as it may appear to purists, this sort of bargaining over the price for ending UN sanctions on Iraq offers the best hope for renewed US-Russian cooperation.