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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Russia Might Veto a War, Putin Says

Kremlin leader's warning about opposing the U.S. at the U.N. comes as dispute within NATO goes on.

February 12, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Russia warned Tuesday that it might use its veto at the U.N. Security Council to block a U.S. war on Iraq, and the White House urged NATO to overcome a potentially crippling diplomatic standoff as trans-atlantic tensions persisted.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin put rhetorical muscle behind an emerging antiwar alliance with France and Germany during the second day of a visit to France. Putin said he opposes the use of force in Iraq without U.N. approval and warned that Russia and France, both permanent members of the Security Council, might team up to veto a U.S. military operation.

"If today a proposition was made that we felt would lead to an unreasonable use of force, we would act with France or alone," Putin said when asked during a French television interview about a veto. "I am convinced that it would be a grave error to be drawn into unilateral action outside of international law."

Putin rejected the idea that Russia, France and Germany, which a day earlier proposed reinforcing arms inspections in Iraq as an alternative to war, have formed a bloc to defy Washington. But it appeared likely Tuesday that the Bush administration would have to contend with a serious challenge from the three countries at the U.N. before it can confront Baghdad.

"We are trying to find a peaceful solution to a grave international crisis," Putin said.

Despite Putin's close relationship with the U.S., he has at least temporarily swung to the side of Paris and Berlin in an acrimonious dispute that is dividing and shaking up international institutions: the United Nations, the European Union and, most urgently, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, the 19 alliance ambassadors met again Tuesday but failed to resolve a deadlock over a U.S. proposal to begin contingency planning to bolster Turkey's defenses in the event of a war. France, Germany and Belgium continued to resist the measure on the grounds that it would open the door to military action before diplomacy has run its course. The three countries say they will defend Turkey if it is in genuine danger.

A breakthrough seems unlikely in Brussels before Friday, when the Security Council is scheduled to meet to consider a report from arms inspectors and debate its next move.

"Any caving in to the U.S. request on Turkey would be interpreted as the beginning of the climb-down at the U.N. on the Iraq question," said Francois Heisbourg, a former French defense official and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank. "So the problem of Turkey at NATO will fester."

The turmoil at NATO generated concern in Washington on Tuesday. During a session of the Senate Budget Committee, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell disagreed with a senator's suggestion that the administration is "barreling in" to Iraq over the objection of its allies and hurting NATO in the process.

"The alliance is breaking itself up because it will not meet its responsibilities," Powell said.

Analyst Heisbourg called the Atlantic alliance "the first victim" of an escalating clash in Europe in which France, Germany and smaller countries in the antiwar camp have confronted Britain, Spain, Italy and East European nations that support Washington's Iraq policy.

Even before the Iraq debate, NATO had struggled to remain a relevant force in a post-Cold War era in which the U.S. appears inclined to enlist allies selectively. After several years of pledges to remake NATO, Washington on the one hand and Paris and Berlin on the other now don't seem concerned about inflicting long-term damage on the 54-year-old Atlantic alliance, Heisbourg said.

"You now have a split in NATO, not just in Europe," he said. "It's being extended into the strategic realm. When the key players consider the alliance marginal, you know you have a real crisis. A crisis of indifference."

At the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tried to cast the issue in a positive light. He pointed out that 16 of the 19 NATO nations are aligned with the U.S. on the proposal to prepare additional troops, missile defenses and surveillance planes for Turkey.

"At the end of the day, the president does believe that the right thing will be done and that nations will honor their obligations to our friend Turkey," Fleischer said.

In the end, Fleischer predicted, the United States and its European allies will patch up their differences.

"Because democracies are entitled every now and then to a good spat, this will all pass over, and we will all remain as allies," he said. He described President Bush as confident that "even amid our differences with a couple -- perhaps three, maybe two, maybe one -- that we will remain an alliance, that we will remain unified and that in the end, Saddam Hussein will be disarmed thanks to the collective will of all."

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Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.

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