On the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s arrival in Europe, Russia continues to play a key role in the frenetic diplomatic maneuvering that has accompanied the latest crisis in the Persian Gulf. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was the object of some controversy yesterday when agency reports quoted him as having expressed doubts to journalists that military strikes on Iraq can be averted. (Reuter, January 29)
Primakov, who was in Madrid for talks with Spanish leaders, later claimed to have been misquoted. He also reiterated Moscow’s view that the launching of strikes on Iraq would only exacerbate the crisis there. He said he was pinning considerable hope on the consultations with Albright that are scheduled for today in the Spanish capital. (Itar-Tass, January 29) Albright is also to meet with French and British leaders during her trip. She is seeking support for possible military actions against Baghdad. In Paris on January 28, Primakov and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine voiced their opposition to any U.S. strikes on Iraq (a position on which Vedrine appeared to reverse himself in talks yesterday with Albright).
As he prepared for his own meeting with Albright, Primakov yesterday awaited the arrival in Madrid of Russia’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, Viktor Posuvalyuk. The Russian diplomat had met one day earlier in Baghdad with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. (See yesterday’s Monitor) His trip to Madrid came despite earlier reports from officials in Moscow that Posuvalyuk might remain in the Iraqi capital indefinitely to continue negotiations on a settlement of the standoff between Iraq and the UN. Although no details of those talks have been made public, Iraq’s foreign minister yesterday described Posuvalyuk’s mission as "fruitful and successful." A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said only that if Posuvalyuk had made no progress in Baghdad, then "there would have been no reason for him to go to Madrid." (Itar-Tass, Reuter, January 29)
In Moscow, meanwhile, the chief spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry yesterday leveled a blast at Richard Butler, the head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) overseeing UN weapons inspectors. Valery Nesterushkin accused Butler of making unsubstantiated claims to the effect that Iraq has maintained stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and that it possesses a secret plant for the production of biological weapons. Nesterushkin also criticized Butler for recommending that the UN take additional punitive steps against Iraq. (Itar-Tass, January 29)
Nesterushkin’s remarks echoed criticisms voiced earlier in Baghdad that were also embraced on January 28 by French Foreign Minister Vedrine. These included the accusation that, by making his remarks in public, Butler had exceeded his mandate as UNSCOM chief. (The Washington Post, January 29) Moscow has already pledged to back Baghdad’s call for changes in the operations and personnel overseen by UNSCOM. Yesterday’s developments suggested that a call for Butler’s replacement could also be forthcoming.
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