When Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov issued a barely veiled threat Friday to use Russia's veto power against a new U.N. Security Council resolution, he flashed what may be Moscow's biggest bargaining chip on the Iraq table.
The U.S. and Russia appear to be in high-stakes negotiations over the price of a "yes" vote from Moscow -- or the cost of a veto.
"The word 'veto' must have been uttered in order to use its threat and get certain concessions from the Americans," said Liliya F. Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The comments came after President Vladimir V. Putin's chief of staff, Alexander S. Voloshin, held three days of talks in Washington this week that are widely believed to have focused on how Moscow might benefit from giving greater diplomatic support to President Bush's Iraq policy.
Those top-level but secretive discussions -- described by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as "very, very good" -- came after months of high-pressure diplomacy, including subtle bargaining over issues such as repayment of Iraq's debt to Moscow and future oil contracts.
Speaking at a news conference in Beijing on Friday, Ivanov said: "Russia has the right of veto at the U.N. Security Council, and, if it is required in the interests of international stability, it may use this right."
U.S. officials, however, say they don't expect a Russian veto -- and they haven't been shy in telling Russia that its economic interests lie in friendship with the new Iraqi government that would be installed after any successful U.S.-led war.
"The arguments that we've made on economic grounds to the Russians are not anything like quid pro quos," a senior Bush administration official said, speaking on condition that he not be further identified. "What we've said is that if you are concerned with recouping your $8 billion in debts and if you're interested in economic opportunities in liberated Iraq, it will be helpful if you were part of the prevailing coalition. I think that's only common sense."
This "common sense," however, constitutes a veiled threat of its own: If Russia vetoes the Security Council resolution that sets the stage for disarming Iraq by force, it may not get the money that Iraq owes Moscow and may find itself frozen out of oil contracts both old and new.
"Our principle is that the oil assets and other assets of Iraq would be turned over to the reconstituted Iraqi government as soon as we can do that, and what the new Iraqi government does I suppose will be their decision," the U.S. official said. "But I don't see why anybody would be surprised that a new government in Iraq would look favorably on the people that helped it get there.
"And I think from an economic point of view, it's hard to argue with the proposition that an Iraq whose oil supplies are fully integrated into the international economy is a lot more likely to be able to service its debts than an Iraq that's a pariah state."
Voloshin went to Washington to seek "guarantees of our interests in Iraq," said Sergei A. Markov, a Russian political analyst with good Kremlin connections. "But this is a delicate thing." He cited a contract between Iraq and Russian oil giant Lukoil as an example, and noted the difficulty of ascertaining what a future government might do.
"How can we get assurance that guarantees remain valid once promises are given?" Markov said. "How should a guarantee be reflected? Should we expect Bush to stamp his presidential seal onto the Lukoil contract with Iraq?"
Markov expressed skepticism that Washington would honor any promises concerning Iraqi oil.
"Only very idealistic people in Russia can believe that when it comes to dividing the control over Iraqi oil resources, Bush will listen to Putin rather than to his friends from Texan oil companies," he said. "The Americans are not giving us any guarantees yet anyway."
Instead, Voloshin discussed potential payoffs in other areas, Markov said.
"For example, he might talk about uranium-related markets, about markets for spent nuclear fuel, about acceptance of the Russian military-industrial complex into NATO arms markets, about a change in U.S. policy toward pipeline-laying consortiums," he said.
"I am sure that Voloshin also spoke about oil companies' interests and guarantees for them too," Markov said. "But at this stage, I don't see the way Bush can really give us any practical guarantees on this issue."
In a more political vein that some view as part of the Iraq bargaining, the State Department said Friday that it has designated three Chechen rebel groups as "terrorist organizations," a step Moscow has been urging. It named the three as Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs, the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment and the Islamic International Brigade.
U.S. officials said the three groups took part in the mass hostage-taking at a Moscow theater in October, when 129 captives died, nearly all from a sleeping gas that Russian forces used before they stormed the building. The State Department also said the groups have ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Russia, which has fought two wars in the separatist republic of Chechnya, is pressing for more groups to be placed on the list.
Shevtsova said it's a bit late for Russia to be haggling over economic and political benefits in return for support on the resolution, because a war is extremely likely and Russia won't want to go against the winners.
"The point of no return has been passed," she said. "The train that Russia should end up on has already started off. And now Russia should be thinking not about getting dividends, or bargaining with the U.S., but about getting on that train and finding a seat."