The Russian weekend of Tony Blair

It seems that the meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in his Zavidovo residence in the outskirts of Moscow was of great importance to the British Premiere Tony Blair.

The plane carrying Blair to Moscow had a thick trail of political speculations behind it. A considerable part of the British public, which criticizes Blair for his excessive complaisance toward Washington, saw in this visit another confirmation of the validity of their accusations. According to his critics, the U.S Administration has assigned Blair with a delicate task - to offer Putin a good price for Russia's support of the American-British resolution on Iraqi problem submitted to the UN Security Council.

The British press wrote that the only remaining question was what that price could be. Could it be the return of the Iraqi debt estimated at US $8 billion? Or maybe the promise to ignore the violations of human rights in Chechnya? The inventors of political myths wouldn't spare even Putin. According to their suppositions, during the meeting with Blair, Putin was allegedly ready to "deliver Saddam Hussayn to the West".

Nothing of the sorts has happened in Zavidovo. During the final press conference, the Russian President clearly stated that he couldn't see any formally legal reasons for the new Iraqi resolution. According to Putin, Iraq has already made significant concessions by allowing the UN inspectors to work in the country without any restrictions, and it's up to the inspectors to do their job.

Such statement could be considered as the first challenge to the West thrown by Putin during two and a half years of his presidency. So far, the Russian President has succeeded in finding the right solutions in all potentially controversial situations, be it the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, or the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, or the opposition to the U.S. Missile Defense program, or the treaty on the reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals. And by doing so he managed to maintain and strengthen Russia's role as a partner and an ally of the West.

Russia under Putin doesn't want to lose the support of the West and find itself alone in the fight with international terrorism. The Russian leader confirmed this position once again when, summing up the results of his meeting with Blair, he agreed that it was necessary to take into consideration the previous negative experience of the UN inspectors' work in Iraq. In that respect, Putin allowed the possibility of "finding some other solutions, including the new UN resolution".

The document mentioned by Putin is probably similar to the first of the two drafts suggested by France. Paris calls for a two-step approach when the first one would give the inspectors the unlimited freedom of actions, and only the second (which could be adopted only if the first one fails) would include a clause allowing the use of force.

On Saturday, the idea of a two-step approach was supported also by the UN Secretary-General. Many analysts suggest that Kofi Annan's decision was in a certain way influenced by the results of the summit in Zavidovo.

Both Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin rejected the suspicions that their meeting was aimed at finding a lucrative compromise on the Iraqi problem. As the Russian leader derisively noted, he didn't invite his British counterpart to visit the "Eastern bazaar".

There is another question, though. Should the West take into account Russia's legitimate and long existing interests in Iraq? During the final press conference, Tony Blair didn't leave any doubts about this issue - yes, it should. London shares Moscow's concern because Great Britain has economic interests in Iraq as well.

But a mere understanding of the principles is not enough. Russian oil companies, which have received extremely lucrative contracts on exploring Iraqi oil deposits, justifiably demand some solid evidence that any kind of action in Iraq would not bring them material and financial losses.

Besides, there are a lot of sceptics in Moscow, as well. They don't buy the idea that the U.S. is getting for war with Iraq because it pursues the bright ideals of disarmament. They claim that the United States is interested, first of all, in destabilizing the international oil market, by flooding it with cheap Iraqi oil, and, therefore, killing two birds with the same stone - reviving its own economy and depriving Russia's budget of half of its revenues. According to Russian experts, in case of the military action in Iraq, Moscow could survive if the prices went down to US $18 per barrel, but not less than that.