MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the United States against unilateral military action against Iraq, saying such an action could only come after United Nations Security Council approval.
In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal Monday, Putin, interviewed at the Kremlin, explained that the situation in Iraq was different from that of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Only international support could allow American action against Saddam Hussein to take place, he said.
Putin also reaffirmed Russia' partnership with the U.S., calling it the "natural and necessary" key to global stability. The two powers have reached "new level of trust," he said, one that "allows us, despite any differences or arguments on specific issues, to avoid confrontation."
The Russian president was the first world leader to offer condolences to President Bush after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and he has been a strong supporter of the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
But Russia also leads Security Council support for Iraq, which owes Moscow billions of dollars. It routinely protests Anglo-American airstrikes on Iraqi military facilities and works to end the U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after Hussein's 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait.
"There is no ground to violate internationally recognized procedures" in dealing with Iraq, Putin said. "The military option is far from being the sole, universal or best solution."
Putin also criticized Bush's "axis of evil" comments from the State of the Union address two weeks ago, in which the U.S. president warned that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were working to destabilize the globe.
Several U.S. officials have suggested that Iraq would be the next target of the American-led war on terrorism.
"We oppose the drawing up of blacklists," Putin said in the Journal. He admitted that Iraq presented a "problem," but added that "such problems cannot be solved by one country alone."
The Russian president said he had spoken with his American counterpart after the Jan. 29 address, stating that Bush was "aware of our position" regarding Iraq, which he characterized as "not unique and ... shared by a very large number of other countries."
"It was a success for him as a political leader," Putin said of the State of the Union address. But, he noted, Bush "did not say that bombing will start tomorrow."
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "has made clear that different coalitions will be formed with different nations for different objectives. The president knows that on some issues, he'll have the support of many nations. On others, he'll have the support of a differing number of nations."
Fleischer said the Bush administration intends to "continue to work with Russia," including cooperating on developing new "smart sanctions" on Iraq. The United States seeks to revamp the sanctions against Iraq to target the government and not harm its people, but needs Russia's approval in the Security Council.
On other matters, Putin said that Russia, as one of the world's largest producers of crude oil, favored a price of $20-25 per barrel.
He also defended the criminal investigations launched recently against several prominent Russian businessmen, many of whom are political opponents of Putin. He did admit that police and prosecutors sometimes make mistakes, but said the alternative would be worse.
"Naturally we have to improve the activity of our law-enforcement authorities, but the worst way of improving their work is to block all action," Putin said. He made an analogy to a Russian joke in which an inept dentist, pulling out healthy teeth, tells a patient not to worry because "we'll find the sick tooth at some point."
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.