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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 February, 2003, 22:11 GMT
Putin takes anti-war back seat
The BBC's Jacky Rowland
By Jacky Rowland
BBC correspondent in Moscow

President of Russia Vladimir Putin and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
Russia backs the Franco-German position on Iraq
Russia has made a point of letting France and Germany spearhead the campaign at the United Nations Security Council against the American push for war on Iraq.

Moscow has given its backing to the latest Franco-German plan to secure Iraqi disarmament by peaceful means through strengthened weapons inspections.

But President Vladimir Putin has been careful to avoid the kind of unequivocal positions that the French and German leaders have taken.

Russia will continue to back the anti-war camp for only as long as it suits Russia's interests.

These interests are different to those of the Germans and French, who appear to be using the Iraq crisis as a platform for forging a European policy distinct from Washington's agenda.

'New best friend'

President Putin was quick to offer moral and logistical support to the United States after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

That strong backing - which included tacit agreement for the US to use military bases in former Soviet Central Asian republics to launch its war in Afghanistan - turned Vladimir Putin into President Bush's new best friend.

The Russian leader has been careful not to waste this hard-earned goodwill by rushing into any strident, irreversible statements against war in Iraq.

Mr Putin recognises that confrontation with the US is not in Russia's best interests.

Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz
Ivanov and Aziz: Russia has economic interests in Iraq
Its priorities these days are practical rather ideological: it needs to modernise its economy and society.

To do that, it will need foreign investment, particularly from the US.

It is time for a new special relationship.

With war against Iraq now looking all but inevitable, many in Moscow realise that the time has come to get off the fence.

Russia cannot expect to be given a role in the Iraq of the future if it refuses to play a part in removing President Saddam Hussein from power.

Russia has deep-rooted, valuable interests in Iraq.

The government in Baghdad owes Moscow about $8bn in debt, mainly from weapons sales dating back decades.

Oil fears

At the same time, Russian companies have signed deals to develop Iraq's oilfields; contracts that are not worth the paper they are printed on as long as sanctions remain in force against Baghdad.

Russia is one of the biggest exporters of oil in the world, and is now benefiting from high oil prices.

But it is afraid that prices may plummet once Iraqi oil comes flowing back onto the world's markets.

Russia needs the situation in Iraq to be resolved if it is to see any return on its investments.

And it is becoming increasingly likely that any solution will be a military one.

In this case, it is in Russia's interest to co-operate with the US rather than hold out against it, and to get Washington to work through the UN Security Council.

Russia's position as a permanent, veto-holding member of the Security Council is its main foreign policy tool these days.

So Moscow is anxious to preserve the authority of the UN in deciding international law.

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