In December 1989, George Bush Sr. led by hand to Mikhail Gorbachev a young woman from the National Security Council. "She is Condoleezza Rice," the president introduced her, "all I know about the Soviet Union I owe to her." On Monday, Rice, the national security adviser to George Bush Jr., made a lightning visit to Moscow and had a series of meetings with the Russian leadership, including a conversation with Vladimir Putin. Her impressions from these negotiations she took to Belfast, the venue of another summit between the American president and the British prime minister, dealing mainly with a post-war Iraq. No doubt, the coalition leaders would like to know what the Kremlin thinks on this score.
Although Russia still considers the war a big mistake, it is not inclined to elevate what happened to a kind of fundamental obstacle to cooperation with the US, including the Iraqi knot.
It looks such a view also meets Washington's interests. It realises that Moscow still keeps serious leverage on the situation with Iraq. Sooner or later, the United States will need legitimization of any Iraqi regime it'll set up on the UN part, and an official lifting of the sanctions on Iraq, and here Russia's good will is indispensable. Not to mention that Moscow's persistent calls to get the Iraqi problem back "to the UN platform" largely coincide with the feelings of the US combative coalition ally - Britain.
On balance, it seems that both the Kremlin and the White House have come to the conclusion that differences over Iraq have driven Russian-American relations into too steep a nosedive, which should be ended as soon as possible. Indeed, on the eve of the military campaign and especially in its first days mutual recriminations looked like well-forgotten Cold War days.
The inertia of that rift is making itself felt to these days. By allocating the administration 8 billion for Iraq's rehabilitation, the US House of Representatives with a vengeful satisfaction voted for an amendment which says that not a single cent of this sum may be used to pay for goods and services by any supplier from Russia. France, Germany and Syria were likewise blacklisted.
Fortunately for Russian-American economic relations the sobering spirit is already prevailing in the Senate, which threw out the amendment in its present form. "This is a highly destructive idea," Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed the predominant sentiment. "If America had wanted to turn into a wilful country, this could have been a good beginning".
It appears that for refusing to back Washington on Iraq Russia had all but paid with the lives of its co-citizens.
During her Moscow conversations Condoleezza Rice had to listen to many stern words about a convoy of Russian diplomats out of Baghdad being fired at. Five diplomats, including ambassador Vladimir Titorenko, received wounds, and one of them a serious injury. The shooting came mainly from US troop positions, the ambassador is confident.
Titorenko actually described the shooting as "deliberate." He is echoed by many Russian military analysts who think that the US did not like the time Russian diplomats were taking to depart from Baghdad, suspecting them of eavesdropping on the air waves and examining samples of American military vehicles knocked out by Iraqis.
Be that as it may, it is hard not to come round to thinking that had Russian-American relations not been so cooled by disputes at the UN Security Council around Iraq, GI's would hardly have taken in their M-16 sights a diplomatic car flying a tricolour flag.
But Iraq, for all the history-making developments there, is not the whole world. And few will deny that special responsibility for maintaining this fragile peace rests with two major nuclear powers destined to cooperate in any critical situation both today and in the future.
This was what President Putin meant when he made a statement in Tambov on Wednesday, which had wide-ranging international repercussions: for political and economic considerations Russia is not interested in a defeat of the United States. It was a sign that the Iraqi hiccup in the American-Russian partnership should remain in the past. A clash of views on Iraq is not an occasion for backsliding from the new level of mutual understanding reached between Moscow and Washington following the September 11 tragedy, the Russian president intimated.
Putin could have been motivated either by foreign policy or purely internal circumstances. Some of the Russian politicians, in particular Yevgeny Primakov, a former premier and head of foreign intelligence, are not sure that the US has finally opted for what they neatly describe as "independent decisions." That is ignoring the will of the international community in the person of the UN. Russian political scientists have hopes that a small group of advocates of "the new American century" in the US administration will make public opinion only until a presidential election campaign kicks off. Competition with the more sober-minded foreign policy priorities of the Democratic Party will make the Republican elite tone down what is called "power presumption." Perhaps in its desire to establish a bipolar world Moscow would also like to preserve and even cement the independence of the Old Europe from the Atlantic ally, which emerged on the back of anti-war sentiments. Yet, by making sharply anti-American slogans, Russia would on the contrary have pushed this Europe back into the US embrace, not towards Paris, Bonn, Brussels and their kith and kin continuing to occupy relatively independent positions.
Putin also saw a threat in an outburst of anti-Americanism inside Russia. Emotions evoked by a strike on Iraq were seized upon by all shades of political speculators. By anathemizing America, parties of a chauvinist brand were agilely recruiting an electorate ahead of State Duma elections. Domestic Islamic radicals declared a jihad on America, testing the strength of mutual religious tolerance.
It is strange indeed that the image of America in Russian eyes has suffered but little. According to the latest poll conducted by the All-Russian Centre for Public Opinion Studies, three-quarters of the population in Russia, where the percentage of Muslims is very high, still have a "good or a very good attitude" to the American nation.
The Kremlin's signal pointing to the desirability of taking Russian-American relations out of the period of hardening induced by the Iraqi war was balanced with no less energetic signals from the other side. "We are committed to our long-term strategic relations with Russia," said Taylor Cross, a White House spokesman, before Condoleezza Rice left by air for Moscow. "And we are looking to an exchange of views with Russians on how best to move forward." First such exchanges have already taken place. Rice passed to Putin a letter from Bush, containing wishes to develop the Russian-American partnership. She rated her discussion with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov as "very good." Also good will probably be the news from Russia which the national security adviser has brought to Bush in Belfast.