Saddam's statues started to fall last week. So did the oil prices.
To the United States, the world's biggest oil importer, this is good news.
To Russia, the world's largest oil producer and second largest oil exporter, this is very bad news indeed.
And it doesn't help that Russian oil is much more expensive and of a lower quality than the Saudi or Iraqi variety.
“What are we going to do with our oil?” Russian headlines ask rhetorically.
This situation presents the ultimate test for U.S.-Russian relations.
It is important for the United States to keep these relations afloat even if only to make sure that Russia, the world's second largest nuclear power, does not become bankrupt, desperate, and politically volatile.
For both the United States and Russia, the good news is that the Bush administration may be prepared to throw Russia a bone in the form of some trade concessions or a piece of the Iraqi reconstruction pie, thus keeping diplomacy going.
The Bush administration does not support a populist Congress initiative to cut off Russia - along with France, Germany, and Syria - when time comes to reconstruct the Iraqi economy.
The House of Representatives passed the proposal in question earlier this month.
The Senate, however, blocked a similar initiative after a call from the White House, according to a report from Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Moreover, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was in Moscow last week to mend fences with the Kremlin.
It remains to be seen how it plays out, but this visit may have been a signal to the Kremlin that President Bush may cut a deal with his Russian counterpart when/if the two meet in Russia next month.
There are indicators that the Kremlin is prepared to be flexible.
Speaking Friday after a summit with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin said the United Nations should play the central role in Iraq and that Russia would consider writing off Iraq's debts, Associated Press reported. Iraqi debts to Russia are estimated at about $8 billion.
Russian media are shifting their focus from criticism of the United States to calculating Russia's prospects for lucrative bids to reconstruct the Iraqi oil industry.
But chances are slim that any conceivable U.S trade concessions or Iraqi reconstruction bids will meet Russian aspirations.
True, President Bush has said the United Nations should play a “vital role” in rebuilding Iraq, but mentioned only humanitarian assistance, fund-raising and suggestions about the makeup of the interim authority.
So the danger is that Russia will get a single rose instead of a dozen.
This would play into the hands of Russia's military-industrial complex hard-liners who do not share the Kremlin's pro-U.S. leanings.
Russia has been so far successful in coordinating its efforts with France and Germany, which increases their chances of success.
But whatever the outcome of this meeting, Russia's aspirations deserve serious consideration by the Bush administration.
Unless the United States throws Russia some hefty contracts, it may become impossible for the Kremlin to save face and survive the approaching parliamentary and presidential elections.
Should that happen, the United States might face a politically destabilized Russia as soon as 2004.
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