President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin traded jabs yesterday over the war in Iraq, with Bush protesting in a phone call about reports of Russian sales of night-vision goggles, antitank missiles and Global Positioning System-jamming devices to Iraq. Putin warned Bush that the war -- which Russia fiercely opposes -- could result in a "humanitarian catastrophe in the region."
The tense conversation underscored the growing chasm in U.S.-Russian relations over the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Bush administration officials had long contended that the warming relationship between the United States and Russia had been one of Bush's key achievements since he took office.
But U.S. officials said they are furious that the Russian government has not stemmed the sales, despite repeated requests over the past year to take action. Russia, for its part, had threatened to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, and Putin has taken an increasingly harder line since the war began.
U.S. officials went public with their allegations over the weekend after they discovered Russian company technicians in Baghdad aiding the Iraqis with the GPS-jamming devices after the war began. Officials also said they learned last month that an order of several thousand pairs of night-vision goggles was due to be shipped by a Russian firm, and that Russian authorities apparently did not stop the shipment.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush and Putin spoke frankly to each other yesterday, diplomatic code for a blunt conversation. "There are problems," Fleischer said. "This clearly is a problem that needs to be resolved, and this is why it came up in the phone call."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also called Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov yesterday to complain about the sales. Before Powell's call, Ivanov told reporters that Russia had investigated and found no evidence to support the administration's allegations. "No facts regarding the U.S. concerns were discovered," he said.
But Powell disagreed, telling Fox News: "We believe we have given them more than enough information so that they should have been able to find out the truth of this.
"So far I am disappointed at the response," he added.
Fleischer said Putin had assured Bush that the matter would be investigated
Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that so far the GPS-jamming devices were not affecting operations. "We have been aware for some time of the possibility of GPS jammers being fielded," he said. "What we've found is, through testing and through actual practice now, that they are not having a negative effect on the air campaign at this point."
The Moscow-based firm that allegedly sold the devices denied the U.S. claims, though it acknowledged that Baghdad had been interested in acquiring the goods. "They are just making this up," Oleg Antonov, the director of Aviaconversiya, told Agence France-Presse. "Let them capture one of our personnel. They won't find any of our technicians in Iraq. The Americans are trying to find a scapegoat because their bombs are not falling as accurately as they want."