Russia's olive branch to Iraq raises US hackles

PUBLIC clashes between the United States and Russia in the United Nations Security Council have produced flashbacks of Cold War rhetoric, but no real damage to the new way the old superpowers do business. In the Security Council this week, the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, employed rhetorical techniques that have not been seen for some time. In making a case for the step-by-step easing of economic sanctions on Iraq, he accused 'some colleagues' of making 'hasty, inadequate and misguided' statements of Baghdad's intentions.

In reply, never mentioning Russia by name, the US envoy, Madeleine Albright, called on the Council to 'totally reject' Moscow's approach. Saddam Hussein should not be rewarded in an 'a la carte fashion', she said.

Mr Kozyrev talked about 'emotions which overcome all of us from time to time' and which can be 'drawbacks to partnership' - by which he meant Russia's relationship with Washington. He also spoke of a 'new dangerous phenomena of double standards' in the way the Security Council imposes and lifts economic sanctions, or sends troops to meet a threat.

He accused the Council of using double standards, one for Western nations - such as in Haiti, where a huge Western military coalition was formed to remove a dictator - and another in, say, Georgia, where the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, appealed for UN help to calm ethnic conflict and received 'several dozen observers'.

The rhetoric should be seen against the fact that the US and the Russians have been at odds on Iraq for months. But the barbs until now have been exchanged behind closed doors.

The way in which the clashes occurred overrated their significance. Mr Kozyrev came to the UN asserting he had brokered a deal with President Saddam over the recognition of Kuwait. But it turned out he had not. Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, refused to produce what the US, Britain and France were asking for, a formal recognition of Kuwait.

The US was forced to respond not only to Mr Kozyrev but also to Mr Aziz.

'Words are cheap, actions are the coin of the realm,' said Ms Albright, emphasising US irritation with Baghdad as well as the split with Russia.

All this took place against the backdrop of the simmering dispute between Washington and Moscow over Bosnia. Mr Kozyrev's effort to draw the Bosnian Serbs to the peace table has been in vain. Washington's efforts to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims has also foundered. There is irritation on both sides.

Washington is in a quandary over over how to deal with these differences.

Some argue that not giving President Boris Yeltsin and Mr Kozyrev their due for diplomatic efforts harms them domestically. Others argue Russian foreign policy really doesn't matter that much, and Mr Yeltsin's success or failure will be determined within Russia. Mr Yeltsin can be allowed to play to his nationalists - as long it does not undermine stated US national interests.

Washington's and Moscow's global aims are essentially the same, but over Iraq, the US national interest in oil makes it play hard ball.

Moscow's interest in being paid billions of dollars for past aid to Baghdad makes it strain the diplomatic envelope. Mr Kozyrev ranted a bit. But no one expects him to take his shoe off soon and bang it on the table.