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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Holds Cards Close to Chest

APPutin and Blair taking a walk Friday during talks at the government residence in Zavidovo, 120 kilometers north of Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin's soft-worded but firm refusal to acquiesce to the U.S.-British push for automatic use of force against Iraq over any disruption of the planned weapons inspections demonstrates his unwillingness to cross the Rubicon before it becomes crystal clear whether and when the Anglo-American alliance will attempt a forceful change of regime in Baghdad.

After meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Putin told reporters that Russia could agree to a new UN Security Council resolution on Iraq, but only to ensure the return of inspectors. He then said the West has not produced "trustworthy data" that Iraq has amassed weapons of mass destruction, thus leaving open the possibility that Russia may modify its position if such evidence in supplied.

Although Blair has enjoyed a close relationship with the Russian leader, it would have been unrealistic for him to have hoped that Putin would declare public support for the ouster of Saddam Hussein at this point.

"Since it is not yet known what the UN resolution would be, how Saddam Hussein would react to that and if and when inspectors would go in, it would have been very unwise for any government of any state to have a final position at this point," said William Wallace, professor at the London School of Economics' European Institute.

Putin, Blair and Bush are playing a "very delicate game," Wallace said, with Putin trying to leave as many options open as possible while making sure Russia will have a say in the new Iraq if Washington and London decide to go for a forceful regime change without the Security Council's authorization. Clearly, Putin wants to protect Russia's economic interests in Iraq, which include oil exploration and repayment of Iraq's Soviet-era debt of $7 billion to $9 billion.

Blair and Putin denied they were bargaining over Iraq. At their news conference Friday, Putin joked that he had not invited Blair and his wife to some kind of "oriental bazaar."

Ahead of his visit, Blair told the BBC that Russia was not setting a price for its support. "Obviously there are interests that Russia has in this issue, but I don't think it's a question of price tags," Blair said. But at the news conference, he said Russia has legitimate economic interests in Iraq "and of course we must and will be sensitive to those."

The British press disagreed on the outcome of the visit. The Daily Mail said Putin's refusal to back Blair was "humiliating," while the Sunday Times predicted that Putin, who "stayed cool" on Iraq during Blair's visit, may soon warm up to the use of force.

Blair himself was upbeat on his flight home, the Sunday Times reported. "My best guess is that we will get the resolution we need," he was quoted as saying. "It won't be that long. ... I think you will find things moving quite quickly now."

Given the White House's determination to oust Saddam, the Kremlin might outline its final position on Iraq for what could prove to be the last round of bargaining next month, according to Igor Bunin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. Bush plans to come to St. Petersburg at the end of November to help mark the city's upcoming 300th anniversary, a senior U.S. official was quoted by The Associated Press as saying Thursday.

Russian and U.S. officials have reportedly negotiated behind closed doors on whether Russian oil companies, which export Iraqi oil within the UN-authorized oil-for-food program, will continue to enjoy access to Iraqi oil in case of a regime change. While there is no publicly available information on whether they have struck an agreement, LUKoil president Vagit Alekperov hinted as much. He told the Financial Times in an interview earlier this month that Putin has assured his company that its valuable assets in Iraq will be protected regardless of whether Saddam is driven from power.

In addition to trying to ensure access to Iraq's oil fields, the Kremlin also is trying to use the negotiations with the United States and Britain to advance its interests in Europe, Bunin said.

In his BBC interview, Blair said there is no truth to reports that London and Washington have turned a blind eye to Russia's actions in Chechnya in return for Moscow's support for the campaign in Afghanistan and the policy toward Iraq. Blair called for human rights abuses to be "dealt with" in Chechnya, but then asserted "it is important at the same time to recognize that Russia has a legitimate interest to protect itself from terrorism and to make sure that these issues of extremism are dealt with."

Russia also is looking for support from Britain in its conflict with the European Union over Kaliningrad. Putin said at the Friday news conference that Blair believes the right of Russian citizens to move in and out of the exclave via the Baltic republics has to be fully recognized and Russia "would only be pleased if the European Commission were to listen to British opinion."