A high-ranking Russian diplomat will be coming to Washington late this weekend for meetings with top Bush administration officials about a possible war with Iraq, Fox News has learned.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin looks for ammunition to convince his countrymen that Saddam Hussein needs to be removed from power in Iraq, the visit by his right-hand man, Alexander Voloshin, will be crucial to determining how Russia will vote on the next Iraq resolution at the United Nations.
The decision will likely be based on how convincing his private briefings by administration officials are. He will be getting those briefings at the highest level. Voloshin's schedule is expected to include a meeting with President Bush as well as talks with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet.
Despite the well-known personal fondness between Bush and Putin, and between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Russia is among the three countries, besides the United States and Britain, with the power to veto a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. France and China also possess that power.
The Russians haven't been easy to read. Ivanov Thursday implicitly accused the United States of a rush to brush aside inspections and go to war.
"Strong pressure is being exerted on the international inspectors to provoke their departure from Iraq ... or to provoke them to come up with such assessments to the Security Council that would justify use of force against Iraq," he said.
Nevertheless, while France's opposition to military action in Iraq brings tongue-lashings from Washington, Russia — who has been friendly with the French of late — still seems to get nothing but good will from the United States.
One reason: Russia's vote at the United Nations is seen more as a work in progress.
"The Bush Administration still correctly feels it can make a significant contribution to the evolution of Russian opinion and to further evolution of the Russian policy," said Dmitri Simes, Director of the Nixon Center.
Russian public opinion has proved something of a problem for Putin. Hussein is not considered an "evildoer" in Russia, especially while the government does business with Baghdad.
But the Bush administration's push to link Iraq to the Al Qaeda terror network has touched a chord in Russia and may be the key to turning public opinion around, since Russians are still recovering from a deadly attack on a Russian theater by Chechen rebels. The United States has asserted that rebels fighting Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Chechnya have ties to Al Qaeda.
"I think it's important to provide the Russians with more intelligence information on connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. That will play a major role in the Russian ability, in the Russian willingness to support the U.S. at the Security Council," Simes said.
Fox News Teri Schultz contributed to this report.