Vladimir Radyuhin

The agreement clears the way for Russian membership in the global trade regime.

THE REMARKABLE turnaround in Washington's position in favour of supporting Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation last week may be a sign of significant shifts in U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the Republican defeat in the elections to Congress earlier this month.

After months of stalling on Moscow's 13-year-old bid to join the WTO, the U.S. suddenly changed its mind. The Trade Ministers of the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on Sunday on the sidelines of a two-day annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hanoi. The agreement clears the way for Russian membership in the global trade pact, as the U.S. was the only country in the 58-member WTO Working Party with which Moscow was yet to sign a bilateral protocol.

Barely two weeks earlier, Russian officials said Moscow might walk out of the WTO talks with the U.S. because of Washington's unacceptable demands.

The change of heart in the White House towards Russia was further underlined by the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi, announced also in Hanoi. At first glance, these overtures came at a wrong time, after the Democrats swept control of both houses in the U.S. Congress, vowing to take a tougher stand on Russia than the Republicans have done so far.

However, Mr. Bush's support for Russia's entry to the WTO comes out in a different light if placed in the context of an Iraq policy review his administration has undertaken jointly with Congress.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, the State Department coordinator for Iraq, David Satterfield, said the U.S. was "prepared, in principle, to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq."

Similar suggestions have come from a 10-member Iraq Study Group, a congressionally mandated commission that has been studying the situation in Iraq since March. The two co-chairs of the commission, the former Republican Secretary of State, James Baker, and the former Democratic Representative, Lee Hamilton, expressed willingness to interact with Syria and Iran to stabilise the situation in Iraq.

If the U.S. were indeed to seek the cooperation of Iran and Syria, Russia could play a key role given its close ties with both Tehran and Damascus. This explains President Bush's sudden volte face on Russia's WTO membership.

President Bush took an unprecedented step to hold two meetings with President Putin in the space of four days last week to discuss Iran. Before the two leaders met in Hanoi on the sidelines of the APEC summit, they had a dinner together at a Moscow airport where Mr. Bush stopped for refuelling.

The Moscow meeting took place a day after President Putin received in the Kremlin Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. Both Russian and American diplomats said Iran dominated their leaders' talks in Moscow.

With the U.S.' disastrous performance in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea primarily responsible for the Republicans' Congress debacle, it makes good sense for Mr. Bush to try and win Russia's cooperation as he sets out to improve his foreign policy record in time for the next presidential election in two years' time.

Mr. Putin said he was ready to lend his friend Mr. Bush a helping hand.

The WTO agreement "creates a favourable background for all our activities, including solving complicated international problems," the Russian leader said after a meeting with the U.S. President in Hanoi on Sunday.