For over a decade now, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, parleys between Russian and U.S. leaders, once called “superpower summits,” dwindled to little more than opportunities for the Russian side to make concessions to the Americans in exchange for the financial, political or diplomatic support Moscow desperately needed to continue its transformation. Today, however, as President Bush and President Vladimir Putin begin two days of talks, it is the Russian who will be making demands, a turn of events that underscores the damage the Iraq war has done to U.S. influence abroad.
BESIDES BRITAIN’S Prime Minister Tony Blair — who, like Bush, is in it up to his eyeballs on Iraq — there may be no more sympathetic ear to America’s plight among the world’s major powers than Putin’s. Russia opposed the U.S. timetable for launching the war, to be sure. And like the French, German and other leaders, Putin saw the Bush administration’s decision to go ahead without further diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi regime as an indication that the United States was throwing out the playbook by which the game of power politics had been played since World War II.
But Putin’s prewar opposition never stirred the acrimony that French and German statements did, in part because Putin recognized that he, much more than the prosperous European democracies, still has a great deal to gain from being in favor with Washington.
A FRIEND IN NEED
The Bush administration’s inability so far to convince other nations to help patrol or pay for the postwar occupation and reconstruction of Iraq has put Russia in a strong position. More than any other major power, Russia has the ability to make an immediate impact in Iraq, and if it so chooses, Moscow could send enough troops to truly affect the very difficult mathematical situation facing the U.S. Army and Marines right now.
Similarly, as Robert McFarlane, the former Reagan administration national security adviser, writes in The New York Times on Friday, “Russians know a lot more about the Iraqi infrastructure and how to repair it than the Americans do (after all, they built much of it). ... And since Russia has solid relationships with tribal leaders throughout the country, it is better able to gain their help.”
But there would be a price, and it could be too steep for the Bush administration to consider.
THE U.N.’s ROLE: Russia will insist that any deployment first be blessed by a U.N. resolution — one that gives the United Nations a leading role in designing and implementing a new political structure for Iraq, even as it leaves U.S. commanders in charge of the military mission. Putin himself said as much on Thursday, insisting, “Russia is prepared to step up its participation both in [peacekeeping] operations conducted under the aegis of the U.N., and in coalition organizations authorized by the Security Council.”
SOVIET ERA DEBT: Russia will insist that some $8 billion in debt that Saddam Hussein’s government rang up during the Soviet era be honored in some form — probably through garnishing Iraq’s oil income over the coming decades. If Washington were to support this demand, Iraqi debts to France — Saddam’s second-largest creditor — also would have to be honored.
OIL CONCESSIONS: Russia will demand that contracts valued at some $3.7 billion signed by Lukoil, a Russian energy firm, with Saddam’s government be honored. The contracts give Lukoil exclusive rights to explore for oil and gas in the West Qurna, Phase II area, one of the Middle East’s richest untapped oil fields.
Conceding this point, which the administration has not yet done, would set a precedent for the validity of similar Saddam-era contracts awarded to France’s Total, Italy’s INI, Repsol of Spain and BHP of Britain. In effect, the much-ballyhooed “windfall” for U.S. oil firms would go by the wayside.
STEEL TARIFFS: The tariffs that the Bush administration slapped on steel imports in March 2002 have cost Russia’s steel industry more than any other except China’s — some $500 million, according to U.S. government estimates.
The tariffs, which are being challenged by a host of nations at the World Trade Organization, were cited as necessary by the president to protect U.S. steel companies from unfair foreign competition. Analysts suggest Bush also sought to shore up support in steel-producing states, such as Pennsylvania and Illinois, that voted for his rival, Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential election.
WHAT PUTIN CAN OFFER
Even if Russia commits few troops, the summit offers Bush an opportunity to concede some difficult points to a relatively friendly power rather than to the French, who continue to press their advantage at the United Nations, now with the added leverage of an approaching U.S. presidential election.
A decision by the Russians to participate might not bring forth German or French troops, but India, another power sympathetic to the U.S. antiterror war and worried about instability in Iraq, could be coaxed into a deployment, along with Turkey and South Korea. Pakistan, another country from which the Bush administration has tried to solicit troops, is probably a long shot.
Putin also brings with him a series of chips he can play to help Bush further obscure the sense that he is giving in to international pressure — something no U.S. administration relishes, this one perhaps least of all.
Over the past several months, Russia’s position on two longtime trouble spots — Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weaponry and North Korea’s confirmed efforts — has shifted dramatically. Russia previously steered clear of overt involvement in efforts to contain nuclear ambitions in North Korea, a nation it shares a border with. In August, Russia and China joined with South Korea, Japan and the United States in a new round of talks aimed at heading off a nuclear showdown there, a move viewed with gratitude in Washington.
Even more important, in the Bush administration’s view, is Russia’s about-face on Iran’s alleged program. For most of the decades since the Soviet collapse, Russia steadfastly denied that any evidence existed of an Iranian nuclear program, and based on that policy, continued to insist it would fulfill a Soviet-era contract to build a civilian nuclear energy reactor at Bushehr. This summer, however, Russia began hinting that it would support strong measures if the International Atomic Energy Agency found evidence of nuclear proliferation. The IAEA recently has found evidence of highly enriched uranium at two undeclared nuclear sites in Iran pointed out by U.S. intelligence satellites, and because of this has given Iran a deadline of Oct. 31 to prove once and for all it is not building a bomb.
Last Friday, with the Bushehr reactor construction nearing completion, Russia’s atomic energy minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, said that under current circumstances there was no chance at all that Russia would allow the reactor to be fueled. He said talks had broken down and the delay “could last a long time,” a statement read by analysts as a sign Russia is pressing the Iranians to come clean.
If the talks at Camp David talks any kind of commitment from Putin to enforce that Oct. 31 deadline, the Bush administration can claim a significant victory — one that would provide cover for any concessions made to win Russian support in Iraq.
That an Iraq deal of any kind could be politically possible for the Bush administration says a lot about Putin’s handling of the dispute. Throughout the Iraq debate, Putin chose his words carefully, balancing his partnership with Washington in the antiterror campaign with an awareness that his own military, along with still-potent former communists, views the United States with deep distrust and the Iraq war, in particular, as a sign that America is mutating from a “status quo” power into one willing to use its military to remake the map as it sees fit.
Putin’s most frequently expressed concern about the war — that an Iraq war would fuel instability in the Islamic world rather than quell it — was based on Russia’s own struggles with Islamic separatists in the Chechnya region and in other parts of southwest Russia. Indeed, Putin often equates Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities with the 9/11 attacks and adopted the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” term. The hard political fact is that, in Russia, which has battled for centuries with the Islamic nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia region, adopting a tough line against Islamic militants is deeply popular.
Putin placed Russia firmly in the majority among nations at the United Nations in opposing the U.S. timetable for war, but he took great care not to veer into generalized insults about the United States or its leadership.
“I would like to hope that the basic principles of international law will be observed by all members of the international community,” he said in a typical statement during an interview with a Bulgarian newspaper in March, “and that on this basis we can find solutions admissible for everyone without bringing it to a split not only of the international community, but of the antiterror coalition.”
Whether the Bush administration is ready to move closer to Putin’s position on that now, knowing that France, too will claim it as a victory, is the $87 billion question.
Michael Moran is senior correspondent for MSNBC.com.