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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blair to Play Strong Hand on Saddam

APBlair before leaving Thursday for Moscow
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's strongest ally in the push for tough action against Iraq, carried potentially strong influence when he arrived Thursday for talks with President Vladimir Putin amid signs that the Kremlin may be softening its opposition.

Although Russia continues to oppose military action against Iraq, it has dropped its flat-out rejection of calls for a new UN Security Council resolution that would lay out strict terms for Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors, as called for by the United States and Britain. Throughout the growing crisis, Russian officials have notably avoided statements supporting Saddam Hussein, indicating the Kremlin's stance is dictated primarily by a desire to protect Russia's interests in Iraq -- and that, say analysts, is where Blair can be influential.

Blair has cultivated personal relations with Putin, becoming the first Western leader to visit after Putin was named acting president Dec. 31, 1999. Putin in turn made Britain his first foreign destination after being elected in March 2000.

By itself, the friendship and trust would not be sufficient to change Putin's position on Iraq, but "the relationship means you can start the dialogue further down the track," said Christopher Langton, a Russia analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

In remarks broadcast Thursday on Russian television, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said his country's relationship with Britain was a "strategic partnership" and both nations' positions were "close or coincide" on most foreign political issues.

Russia's interests in Iraq hinge on money, with the Kremlin concerned about the $7 billion owed by Baghdad in Soviet-era debt and about whether Russian oil companies would continue to have access to Iraqi oil fields post-Saddam. "One of the things Blair can say is that we understand your concerns ... we'll look after your interests," said Ariel Cohen of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.

"If he hears that from Tony Blair, with whom he has a good relationship, if he had any doubts that there would be delivery on a promise, then maybe he would be satisfied," Langton said.

Cohen also suggested that Britain, and the United States, could curry Russian acceptance of tough actions by proposing to write off a portion of Russia's foreign debt equivalent to the amount that Iraq owes Moscow -- a move that could be especially attractive just a few months away from 2003, when Russia's scheduled foreign debt payments spike sharply up to $17 billion.

Gleb Pavlovsky of the Fund for Effective Politics dismissed the prospect of Britain defending Russia's interests in Iraq as "fantasy ... Britain will defend its own interests." But he said Blair could mollify Putin by assuring him that Russia, which is sensitive about losing influence to the United States in international affairs, would be a key player in a post-Saddam Iraq. Russia wants "to see itself as a part of the long-term concept of developing Iraq," he said.

In addition, Blair's hand is strengthened by Britain's position as an influential country in the NATO alliance, with which Russia is pursuing closer relations through the newly created NATO-Russia Council, Langton said. "Even though NATO probably has nothing dramatic to do with Russia at the moment, Putin will not wish to muddy the waters on that, and I think there will be discussion [with Blair] on what the NATO-Russia Council means to Russia and by extension to Russia's approach to the U.S. and the U.K. on the Security Council over Iraq," Langton said.

On Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Yury Fedotov said Russia could accept a new UN resolution on inspectors as long as it addressed Moscow's concerns that the resolution not call for the automatic use of force. France, which also has a Security Council veto, is pursuing a two-step strategy under which an initial resolution would call for unfettered access by UN weapons inspectors and, if this fails, a second UN resolution spelling out consequences that do not exclude force.

With that approach palatable to Russia, Blair is likely to be pragmatic enough to accept it also, the analysts said, and Cohen added that Blair's sense of practicality may be one of the qualities that Putin respects most. "Vladimir and Tony speak the same language -- and it isn't German," Cohen said, referring to German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der's categorical rejection of military action against Iraq.