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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Putin Ready to Bargain?

The United States and Britain are lobbying reluctant allies to sanction the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein -- and President Vladimir Putin seems to be first in line to be wooed. Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair phoned Putin at his state residence in Sochi on the Black Sea. The official Russian account of these conversations is that Putin was "not convinced" force is the best option.

Many others in Moscow are more outspoken. The vast majority of State Duma deputies are agreed that Moscow should not do anything to assist a U.S.-led assault on Saddam. The official position of the Foreign Ministry is that UN weapons inspectors should resume their work as soon as possible in Iraq and that military action would only destabilize the Middle East and disrupt oil supplies.

However, accounts of recent Putin-Bush conversations from Washington differ strongly from the Russian version. High-ranking U.S. diplomats say Bush and Putin have discussed Iraq and Georgia and had a "very good conversation."

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The main bone of contention between Moscow and Washington seems at present to be not so much Iraq as Georgia. The Kremlin has for some time been probing Washington about a possible deal that would allow the Russians a free hand in the Caucasus, including Georgia, while the Americans in turn corner Saddam. But such a deal seems out of reach, since Washington has committed itself unequivocally to supporting Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and "the territorial integrity of Georgia."

The White House has recently officially confirmed the bombing of Georgian territory by Russian planes on Aug. 23. In an apparent response, members of the Federation Council have suddenly attacked a 12-year-old accord demarcating the sea boundary near Alaska, signed by then-Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze and the U.S. secretary of state at the time, James Baker.

It is claimed that the accord has cost Russia's fishing industry more than $1.4 billion over the years. Now the Prosecutor General's Office is examining the possibility of indicting Shevardnadze for negligence or treason.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's foreign affairs committee, told journalists that the Baker-Shevardnadze agreement was too generous to Washington and called for it to be rewritten. Margelov -- a clever and pragmatic politician -- is nowadays very close to the Kremlin. Without a nod from Putin personally, Margelov would hardly have dredged up an outdated issue that can only worsen U.S.-Russian relations without bringing Moscow any dividends.

Putin is obviously deeply displeased with U.S. support of Shevardnadze, who -- the Kremlin believes -- is harboring Chechen "terrorists" on Georgian territory. In turn, Washington was dismayed by Russian officials openly lying about the bombing of Georgia on Aug. 23.

John Evans, director of the Russian affairs office in the U.S. State Department, told a Russian-German conference in Berlin on Monday: "On the Kursk we knew instantly what happened, using our Cold War capabilities and shared with Moscow immediately. We knew instantly that last year the Ukrainians shot down a Russian plane with Israelis on board and again immediately told the Ukrainians, the Russians and the Israelis."

On the bombing of Georgia on Aug. 23, the United States also knew the culprit immediately, using its surveillance capabilities. But as with the Kursk, the Russian military preferred to cover up the truth for as long as possible and even further than possible.

Nevertheless, Washington is eager to strike a deal with Putin. Evans insisted that U.S. policy on Chechnya has not changed: "Armed men running around the Caucasus, crossing borders, killing people, are not our friends. In recent months [Chechen rebel leader Aslan] Maskhadov has embraced jihad elements and terrorists, so we are now reluctant to offer him to Moscow as a partner for negotiations."

But will this be enough to coax Putin to go against most of his political elite -- as after Sept. 11 -- and at least tacitly support a U.S. move against Saddam? The Russian president is well known for often making unpredictable but pragmatic decisions. Putin may figure that supporting Saddam is a hopeless stance. The fact that the sea border problem near Alaska has abruptly faded from national TV screens may be a sign that Putin is ready to bargain in earnest.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.