MOSCOW -A senior U.S. diplomat briefing journalists about the U.S.-Russian summit this week indicated that the Bush administration is willing to make military action against Iraq significantly more palatable to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin by ensuring that Russian economic interests would not be harmed.
The diplomat hinted that the United States would look favorably on a post-Saddam Hussein regime honoring Iraq's $8 billion in debts to Russia as well as keeping in place lucrative oil contracts and equipment sales that the Persian Gulf nation has awarded Russian companies.
"Those are things we are prepared to talk about, shall we say, in a positive spirit, if it helps us get to the common goal of denying Saddam Hussein the ability to develop weapons of mass destruction," he said. President Bush meets with President Vladimir V. Putin in a four-day summit in Moscow starting tomorrow.
Although Russia has been Hussein's main ally in the many U.N. Security Council debates on Iraq during the past decade, the deepening friendship between Moscow and Washington since the war on terrorism began last fall could herald a shift in Russia's perception of its own interests, the diplomat suggested.
"I don't think it is foreordained that we will have a parting of the ways if pressure fails and military options have to be considered," he said. "I think the Russians, if Saddam blows his last chance, are prepared to say, 'We tried, but there is nothing more we can do.'"
The Russian-Iraqi business relationship is no small matter here. Some experts estimate its long-term value at $40 billion, or about two-thirds of Russia's national budget for this year. The Russian oil industry called on Putin this week to "protect" Iraq from the United States.
In Washington yesterday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that Iraq would be on the agenda of the Bush-Putin meeting but indicated that the discussion would not necessarily be about military action.
"Since the president hasn't made any decisions on what to do about the status quo in Iraq, just that the status quo is unacceptable, I think he will want to consult with Putin on exactly that point," Rice said.
Bush is likely to lay out the U.S. case for removing Hussein from power and argue that Russia would be better off with an economically healthy regime in Iraq that would not threaten other nations in the Persian Gulf region, another U.S. official said.
But this official said that some of the urgency of winning Russian support has faded since it became clear that the United States is willing to wait because of renewed efforts at the United Nations to impose a return of weapons inspectors to Iraq.
John Tedstrom, who as a National Security Council aide prepared President Bill Clinton for a meeting with Putin, said the summit was a natural occasion for Bush to try to win support on Iraq. Although the Russians have criticized U.S. talk of a "regime change," Putin shares Bush's concern about the threat of radical Islam, Tedstrom said.