U.S. officials Thursday softened their warning about the possibility of long-term damage to relations with Moscow if Russia vetoes a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq.
One senior U.S. official said Washington still hoped to persuade Russia not to use its veto but conceded that, "if anything, the indications are more in the other direction."
Russia is eager to avoid a war in Iraq that it regards as being against its interests. President Vladimir V. Putin sent a top envoy, former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, to Baghdad last month to urge Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to step down and go into exile. Hussein rejected the idea.
"It's my understanding that the Russians have been floating that idea," the official said, confirming rumors that have circulated for some time. The official added that Moscow regarded the possibility of Hussein's going into exile as a chance to end the crisis peacefully.
U.S. officials were confident weeks ago that Russia would not block military action against Iraq. But with the threat of a veto now in the air, U.S. officials are pondering how they misread Moscow's mood, and weighing how serious the fallout would be.
"We will certainly try to minimize any damage," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official added that a Russian veto would not lead to any strategic shift in the relationship, which has been improving.
The official said President Bush's phone call to Putin on Wednesday was "a friendly conversation" that reflected the leaders' determination to keep the relationship on track.
"The leadership of both sides want to minimize the damage because there are so many things that we want to do together," the official said. "But you can't completely insulate the relationship from an issue of this importance."
"I think at the end of the day, the U.S. relationship will remain paramount in Russia's calculation, and certainly in Putin's calculations," the official said.
Putin and French President Jacques Chirac, who is leading the effort to block a Security Council resolution authorizing war, spoke by phone Thursday and pledged to make further efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Putin's news service said.
Part of the difficulty for Washington has been Putin's relative silence on Iraq. He has left public pronouncements largely to foreign ministry officials. When Putin lined up in the antiwar camp last month with the leaders of Germany and France, U.S. officials were taken by surprise.
Washington had calculated that Putin, a pragmatist, valued Russia's relationship with the United States above all other foreign policy issues. U.S. officials also thought that Moscow's interests in the Iraqi oil business and its desire to see Iraq repay $8 billion of debt would be enough to ensure Russian compliance.
There have been some veiled threats, however, notably from a senior Bush administration official in Moscow recently who warned Russia of the economic costs of blocking U.S. objectives.
"What we have said is that if you're concerned with recouping your $8 billion in debts and if you're interested in economic opportunities in liberated Iraq, it would be helpful if you were part of the prevailing coalition," that official said at a background briefing for reporters last month.
"The Americans failed to understand that in order to make Putin change his position on Iraq, it was necessary to offer and actually give him something," said one Moscow analyst, Viktor A. Kremenyuk of the USA-Canada Institute. "In fact, the Americans have done nothing real to attract Russia and win it over to their side."
While Putin's actions have underscored his commitment to relations with the United States, he also has spoken frequently of his desire for a multipolar world not dominated by Washington.
Putin acquiesced to a U.S. military presence in the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union as the United States geared up for war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And despite strong domestic opposition, he also recognized the inevitability of the Bush administration's moves to dump the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, build a national missile shield and enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
While those moves did not dent Putin's popularity or pose a political threat, they left him with critics among hard-line anti-Western elements in the military and security agencies.
"Putin realizes that he cannot keep forgiving the Americans and making concessions to them indefinitely," Kremenyuk said, arguing that Russia's position was a reaction to U.S. unilateralism and a sign of dissatisfaction with its policies.
While Kremenyuk said Putin cannot afford to back down now, other analysts, such as Liliya F. Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center, say Russia might be content with sending a strong message of displeasure and then abstaining from the Security Council vote.
"Russia levies all this psychological pressure on the U.S. for exactly the same reason as France: Both countries do not particularly want the U.S. to dominate the world too much," she said. "It is not at all impossible that Russia abstains in the end."
Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow bureau contributed to this report.