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Russian Minister Responds Skeptically to ‘Axis Of Evil’

By James Gerstenzang

and Edwin Chen

President Bush failed Monday to gain Russia’s agreement that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constitute what he again called an “axis of evil” bent on spreading terror around the world.

Bush met for about 30 minutes in the Oval Office with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, who afterward expressed skepticism about the direction the president has taken in the new phase of the war against terrorism.

The Bush administration has been eager to promote the success of the U.S.-Russian relationship, in the wake of the president’s frequent contacts with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. But as Bush seeks to carry the fight against terrorism beyond Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and the defeated Taliban regime, he is encountering international realities that might strain Russian support for Washington’s course.

Russia historically has been close to Iraq, and the two countries appear to be developing stronger economic links, especially in the oil business.

Kasyanov made clear that Moscow is less willing than the United States to single out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as renegade nations that might be targeted next by Washington. He said the United States and Russia must “identify dangers, real dangers, rather than imaginary” ones.

Asked whether he thought the threat Bush says the three nations pose is “imaginary,” the prime minister avoided a direct answer. Instead, he said that if specific dangers are identified, “we should ... provide evidence to each other and (then) assure all others that those threats really exist.”

Kasyanov also expressed a readiness to cooperate with the administration in seeking out such threats.

Kasyanov’s comments illustrate the balance Russia is trying to strike in its dealings with the United States, said Dmitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

While Russian officials do not agree with Bush’s “axis of evil” warnings -- first issued in his State of the Union speech last week -- they do not view this difference as important enough to lead to a split in the increasingly friendly ties between Washington and Moscow, Simes said.

Russia’s main priorities, he added, are gaining membership in the World Trade Organization and establishing a comfortable relationship with NATO -- goals for which U.S. backing is crucial. Bush’s meeting with Kasyanov focused on those two issues, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

At the same time, Russian officials believe it is in their best interests to gain the goodwill of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, said Frank Gaffney of the Center of Security Policy, another Washington think tank. All are potential clients of Russian weapons technology.