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Who's Who in Washington? Russians Consult the Cards

The 'United Cards of America' is for those trying to keep up with bilateral relations.

September 13, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russians spent years scrutinizing the Kremlin to figure out who was in power, whose star was on the rise, who was being quietly retired to their dacha. These days, though, when it comes to hitting the big line drives, the bench that counts sits in the White House.

For any Russian still unaccustomed to that fact, or confused about the names, batting positions and career highlights of the Bush administration, help went on sale Thursday. The "United Cards of America," Russia's answer to the U.S. military's "Iraqi most-wanted" playing card gallery, features a 36-card roundup of key figures in Washington.

From George W. Bush ("USA President since 2001, convinced that God has a plan for him") to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan ("second-most powerful man in the world") and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ("the face of struggle with terrorism"), the cards are an attempt to educate Russians to the new reality that what happens on the Moscow River is increasingly determined by what happens on the Potomac.

It is a timely message, coming only weeks before a scheduled summit between Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, while Russia is quietly aligning itself as an important U.S. partner on issues such as Iraq, North Korea, the war on terrorism and Iran.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Playing cards -- A caption accompanying an article in Section A on Saturday about a deck of Russian playing cards featuring Bush administration figures incorrectly identified the card on the far right of the photograph as depicting Vice President Dick Cheney. In fact, the image is of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

"It is important that this deck of cards comes out right now when U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their evolutionary peaks, and frankly it doesn't matter whether these relations are good or bad, it is important that they are intense, energetic and full of content," said Azer Mursaliyev, head of the foreign policy department for the daily Kommersant newspaper, who initiated the card project.

In recent years, Russia has helped lead the opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq, announced plans to build nuclear power projects in Iraq and received North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on lavish visits to the Russian Far East -- a foreign policy sharply at odds with many U.S. goals.

But last week, when the Bush administration announced plans to seek broader international participation in Iraqi peacekeeping under the umbrella of the U.N., Russia stepped ahead of France and Germany and said it would not necessarily oppose sending troops under U.S. command.

And rather than rush to North Korea's defense in its standoff over nuclear arms with the U.S., Russia played a key mediating role in recent multiparty talks on the issue in Beijing.

Moscow has failed to heed U.S. requests to back out of an $800-million contract to construct a nuclear power plant at the Iranian port of Bushehr, but it adopted strict new requirements for the return of spent nuclear fuel as concerns grew that Iran had downplayed the scope of its nuclear ambitions.

"There has been a transition. I'm not saying Russia's actually reversed itself and has accepted the American position as its own. What I'm saying is Russia has been migrating toward the American position," said Dmitri V. Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The war in Iraq and its aftermath have proved a turning point in Russia's increasing willingness to help -- or at least not actively oppose -- the U.S. aims, many analysts said.

"It has finally become clear to Moscow that the U.S. has gained a military victory in Iraq and that the Americans can more or less control the situation in Iraq, despite all the guerrilla sorties there," said Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute think tank in Moscow.

Equally important, analysts say, is a new apparent willingness on the part of Washington to seek international help in Iraq and elsewhere, a position Russia sees as a retreat from the go-it-alone stance America took leading up to the Iraq war.

"Russia realizes that now is the time when Moscow's consent and approval can be sold at top price," Kremenyuk said. "Russia realizes that in order to get that top price, it should be the first to say yes to a U.S.-led U.N. peacekeeping contingent."

Pavel Palazchenko, advisor to former Russian President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said Russia saw a turning point as recently as last week, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared the U.S. open to other views on how to promote democracy in Iraq, singling out a relationship with Russia that he said had been "dramatically transformed -- for the better."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Bush administration has considerably muted its criticism of Russia's actions against separatist Muslim rebels in the republic of Chechnya. In August, Washington delighted the Kremlin by designating Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev an international terrorist and moving to seize any of his assets in the U.S.

On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow laid a wreath to commemorate victims of the Sept. 11 attacks at the scene of one of Moscow's worst terrorist incidents, another attempt by the two countries to underscore their declared wars on terrorism.

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