U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen was the recipient of an unexpectedly hostile reception in Moscow yesterday, as Russia’s defense chief used the occasion to lambaste the United States for its threat to bomb Iraq. In remarks to the press that preceded official talks between the two men, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev accused the United States of assuming an "uncompromising" position with regard to Iraq. He also suggested, without mentioning any specifics, that U.S. military strikes on Iraq could adversely affect broader Russian-U.S. ties. "Does the uncompromising and tough stand [of the United States] over the situation in Iraq help to strengthen stability in the world? …Is America ready for all the possible consequences?" Sergeev asked Cohen. (AP, UPI, Russian agencies, February 12)
Sergeev’s remarks — perhaps the toughest criticism of the United States over the Iraq crisis yet issued by a Russian leader — appeared to be intended at least in part for his Russian audience. Moscow’s defense of Iraqi interests, and its defiance of the United States, have proven extremely popular at home. The Kremlin undoubtedly wanted to tap into that sentiment during yesterday’s news conference. That interpretation would seem to have been borne out by the talks that subsequently took place between the two defense chiefs.
Cohen described the two-and-a-half hour meeting as "direct and candid," but he and Sergeev suggested that the atmosphere had improved considerably by its end. Although they continued to disagree over methods, there "was fundamental agreement that (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein must observe the UN resolutions and let the inspectors do their job," Cohen said. (AP, UPI, Itar-Tass, February 12)
In other remarks, Sergeev said that Russia’s main concern was that a U.S. attack on Iraqi chemical weapons stocks could send a cloud of chemical contamination over Central Asia. One American participant at the talks — Virginia Senator John Warner — suggested that Sergeev’s prescriptions for a solution to the crisis were broadly acceptable to the United States. Warner mentioned two: Russian participation in overflights of Iraq and the inclusion of additional inspectors on UNSCOM’s inspection teams. Neither of these proposals is new. Warner appeared to confirm, moreover, that Sergeev had agreed that all sites in Iraq must be open to inspection, without exception. (Reuter, February 12) That has been Washington’s stance and the rationale for its rejection of the latest Russian-brokered compromise proposal. That proposal would apparently allow limited inspections of only of eight disputed sites in Iraq.
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