Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov sent a strong signal yesterday that Moscow is not ready to sign up to join President Bush’s fight against a terrorist “axis of evil.”
Emerging from an Oval Office meeting with President Bush yesterday morning, the Russian prime minister sidestepped a question of whether he endorsed Mr. Bush’s call last week for an aggressive stand against Iran, Iraq and North Korea, all of which Russia has courted diplomatically in recent months.
“We should identify real dangers, rather than imaginary [ones],” said Mr. Kasyanov, who added that he and the president had spent the bulk of their meeting discussing the global war against terrorism and Mr. Bush’s planned visit to Moscow in May.
Asked if he believed the threats Mr. Bush cited from those three countries were “imaginary,” Mr. Kasyanov replied: “Our position is that, yes, we should identify dangers, those you mentioned and others. We should provide evidence to each other and to assure all others that those threats really exist.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved much closer to Washington in the months since September 11. But senior Russian officials have reacted skeptically to what they see as Mr. Bush’s attempts to broaden the war against terrorism as the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan winds down.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a major defense conference in Germany over the weekend that Russia “does not share the U.S. point of view that Iraq, Iran and North Korea pose a terrorist threat to mankind.”
He said Russia would not support or take part in any military operation against them, according to an account in the Russian Itar-Tass news agency.
A Russian parliamentary delegation arrived yesterday in Baghdad on a mission to “develop political dialogue” with Iraq. Delegation leader Ramazan Abdulatipov, a member of the upper house of the Russian legislature, said, “We should not be shy to demonstrate our contacts with this country at various levels.”
Russia is one of Iraq’s biggest creditors, owed $7 billion by the regime of Saddam Hussein, and has cultivated economic and military ties to Iran in recent years as well. Mr. Putin also hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong-il last year during one of the reclusive North Korean leader’s rare forays abroad.
Mr. Kasyanov reported progress on two other fronts in his discussions with Mr. Bush.
The prime minister told Russian television that Mr. Bush hopes to sign an disarmament agreement at the May summit in Moscow, ratifying deep cuts in both sides’ nuclear arsenals.
Diplomats said that agreement would be less than a full-fledged arms-control treaty favored by Moscow, but more than the informal understanding that Bush administration officials originally had suggested.
Another round of talks on the new arms protocol are set for Feb. 19 in Moscow.
And Mr. Kasyanov was much more positive on the growing U.S.-Russian bilateral economic relations.
“From my point of view, economic cooperation may reach a new level in the nearest future,” said Mr. Kasyanov, who met with Mr. Bush yesterday after spending the weekend in New York City at the World Economic Forum. “Everybody is saying a new era is coming.”
Mr. Kasyanov said his talks with administration officials led him to believe that trade restrictions tied to the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment a longtime sore spot for Russia could be abolished by the May summit.
“My impression is that the U.S. administration is sincere in its efforts to persuade Congress to take this action,” he said.
Mr. Kasyanov suggested over the weekend that Russia was prepared to seek a larger share of the world oil market despite the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ hopes to restrict production if the U.S. and European economies resume growing.