|The message from Moscow
Patrick Wintour in Moscow
Wednesday April 30, 2003
Tony Blair's first public attempt to heal the diplomatic wounds of the
Iraq war suffered a humiliating rebuff yesterday when Vladimir Putin, the
Russian president, refused to lift UN sanctions and mocked the possibility
that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq.
Mr Putin also clashed with Mr Blair by demanding UN weapons inspectors be
allowed back into Iraq and challenged Mr Blair's vision of a new world
strategic partnership, arguing it would be unacceptable for the US to
dominate the international community.
The public dressing down for Mr Blair came during a 63-minute press
conference staged by the two men at Mr Putin's private residence outside
Moscow. The two men had a fabled special relationship and Mr Blair had
high hopes he would be able to wean Mr Putin away from his new anti-war
alliance with France and Germany.
Mr Blair started with the full diplomatic niceties but became increasingly
animated until he issued a dire warning of a new world order in which two
different poles of power act as rivals to one another. The world faced a
choice between a partnership between the US and the main countries of the
world or a continued "diplomatic stand off", he said.
Mr Blair had been hoping to use his influence to persuade Russia to agree
to the Anglo-US demand to lift sanctions on Iraq in return for giving the
UN an as yet unspecified "vital role" in the reconstruction of Iraq and
its new government.
But Mr Putin said Russia and its partners "believe until clarity is
achieved over whether weapons of mass destruction exist in Iraq, sanctions
should be kept in place". Almost mocking Mr Blair, he went on: "Where is
Saddam? Where are those arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, if indeed
they ever existed? Perhaps Saddam is still hiding somewhere in a bunker
underground, sitting on cases of weapons of mass destruction and is
preparing to blow the whole thing up and bring down the lives of thousands
of Iraqi people."
He added that sanctions could not be lifted since they had been introduced
because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."It is only the security
council that is in a position to lift those sanctions, after all they
He also derided Mr Blair's talk of a new world order, saying: "If the
decision-making process in such a framework is democratic then that is
something we could agree with, but if decisions are being made by just one
member of the international community and all the others are required to
support them that is something we could not find acceptable."
Mr Putin insisted that the weapons inspectors could return now so that
they could be summoned to any site in Iraq to make a "professional
conclusion" on whether the weapons existed. The inspectors could be
protected by UN or blue-helmeted soldiers along the line of the settlement
reached in Afghanistan. He added that Russia was in a position to take
The tone and content of Mr Putin's rebuff will cause deep anxiety inside
Downing Street which has been increasingly concerned that, following the
war in Iraq, a new bi-polar world order is established with the US on one
side and France and Germany on the other.
Although Mr Blair said he was not disappointed by the Russian response, No
10 had hoped for a more flexible position - especially since Iraq's $8bn
outstanding debts to Russia will be examined by the so-called Paris club,
the bankers of the leading industrialised countries.
Downing Street was concerned last night over the implications of the
mini-EU defence summit in Brussels yesterday. Mr Blair said he could not
support such a new European defence institution if it became a threat to
Nato or sought to duplicate its activities.
Mr Blair also revealed a reluctance to become involved in another bout of
diplomatic wrangling primarily with France and Germany over the UN's
involvement in Iraq.
He said: "Getting agreement with the UN is important, and it is important
we get a vital role for the UN, but we are not going back into the
rigmarole we had the last time over the second UN resolution."
He underlined the point at his press conference saying the role of the UN
in post-war Iraq would be "the first test" of his proposed new strategic
He asked: "Are coalition forces prepared to accept a vital role for the
UN, but are our colleagues on the security council prepared to accept that
our soldiers having fought and died in respect of this war cannot simply
hand Iraq to the sole charge of the UN while the coalition forces are
there on the ground stabilising the situation."