Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 7

As the fortnight drew to a close, the signs were multiplying that Russian and U.S. diplomats might yet narrow differences on a host of security and other issues that have threatened to roil next month’s Russian-U.S. summit meeting in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The most promising pieces of news came on March 28 and 31, when it was announced that separate negotiations had led to breakthroughs with respect both to UN policy toward Iraq and a Russian-U.S. trade dispute. There were also indications, moreover, that the two sides might be on their way to ironing out differences that have thus far prevented them from reaching agreement on a comprehensive nuclear arms reduction plan. As this issue went to press it was unclear whether agreements in any of these areas had been finalized, and there were clearly still problems to be overcome. Moreover, tensions between the two countries on several other important security issues remained unresolved. But after a contentious several months, these latest developments suggested that the two countries might be on the verge of restoring some life to the diplomatic partnership that had joined them in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

The reported breakthrough in Russian-U.S. talks on Iraq came during a meeting in Moscow on March 27-28 between high-level diplomatic teams from the two countries. At issue was a U.S. (and British) backed plan aimed at recasting the existing UN sanctions regime on Iraq. As Baghdad’s most forceful backer, Moscow had opposed the U.S. plan on the grounds that it might impose on Iraq sanctions even more severe than those which exist under the UN’s current “oil-for-food” program. The Kremlin had also supported Iraqi claims that enactment of the new sanctions regime might further delay the lifting of all sanctions on Iraq, something that both Moscow and Baghdad have long demanded. In November of last year, however, Moscow shifted its position by agreeing to enter into negotiations with the United States on the contents of a “goods review list”–that is, a list of all goods that would have to be approved by the UN Security Council before being allowed into Iraq. The list is the centerpiece of a new U.S. sanctions proposal aimed primarily at easing restrictions on the import of civilian goods into Iraq while toughening those on military and dual-use items.

Although the details of the March 27-28 talks have not been made public, representatives of both sides made it clear in remarks to the press that they had made significant progress in resolving their differences. The Russians appear to have eased their opposition to the new sanctions plan in part because of a move by Washington to unfreeze more than seven hundred million dollars worth of contracts signed by Russia and Iraq under the “oil-for-food” program. Whether Moscow also won concessions on another of its primary goals–to greatly reduce the contents of the “goods review list”–is less clear. According to some expert observers, Moscow’s policy shift on the sanctions issue was motivated by a hope that it might help divert the Bush administration from plans to target Iraq militarily. But there was also speculation that the Russian government might be hoping that by dealing with Washington now it might get assurances that any post-Saddam government in Baghdad would honor Iraq’s US$7 billion debt to Moscow.

The details of the Russian-U.S. deal on poultry products are equally unclear. On March 31 the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, announced that the two sides had signed an agreement under which Russia would lift the ban on imported U.S. poultry products by April 10–after the United States responds to some of the requirements that have been set by Russia. There was, unfortunately, no immediate confirmation of the agreement by the Russian side. In remarks made on March 31 Vershbow underscored just how serious the poultry dispute had become, telling reporters that it had emerged as the number one problem in Russian-U.S. relations over the preceding month. Many observers believe that Russia implemented the poultry ban as both a response to U.S. President George W. Bush’s controversial March 5 decision to impose tariffs on a range of U.S. steel imports, including some from Russia, and as a move to strengthen Russia’s own poultry industry. The revenues involved in the trade dispute were anything but chicken feed. Initial estimates said that the U.S. steel tariffs could cost Russian steel producers US$400-500 million. U.S. poultry producers, meanwhile, exported some US$700 million worth of product to Russia last year.