MOSCOW - Ending weeks of silence, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned military action against Iraq, saying Monday that war would be a mistake that could imperil world security.
Earlier, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov, Russia's diplomatic point man on Iraq, said that the Security Council would not approve a U.S.-backed resolution opening the way to military conflict.
For weeks, Putin has been silent on Iraq. He deliberately seemed to be seeking to avoid opposing Washington even as the Russian Foreign Ministry battered home the message that Russia would join France in opposing any U.N. resolution that automatically authorized force.
"We are for solving the problem exclusively by peaceful means," Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. He said Russia's position was clear, comprehensible and unwavering.
"Any other development would be a mistake - fraught with the toughest consequences, leading to victims and destabilization of the international situation as a whole," Putin told Chechen spiritual leaders, according to Interfax.
As U.S. President George W. Bush this weekend prepared for war, Putin attempted to portray himself as a man of peace. In a TV address, he urged voters in Chechnya, where Russia is waging a brutal war against separatists, to approve a new constitution he claimed would help end bloodshed there.
It was the first time in weeks that Putin had spoken on the subject of Iraq, after a silence that led to some speculation that he might toe a softer anti-war line than Russia's Foreign Ministry. Russian diplomats have joined France and Germany in actively opposing U.S.-led efforts to gain U.N. Security Council approval for a resolution that would open the way for war.
Putin late Monday spoke with French President Jacques Chirac by telephone and both leaders "underlined the necessity of continuing, despite the serious worsening of circumstances, the political-diplomatic efforts in the framework of the United Nations," according to a statement from the Kremlin press service.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had been expected to travel Monday to New York for a proposed Tuesday meeting of the foreign ministers of the 15 Security Council members, but the Foreign Ministry said late Monday that the travel plans were still under discussion.
Russia, France and Germany called for the meeting last week, but its prospects were in doubt Monday after the United States withdrew the resolution and Bush gave Saddam Hussein the ultimatum to leave Iraq or face war.
U.S. officials have said Russia's relations with the United States could be damaged by Russian opposition to a U.N. resolution.
After an emergency summit Sunday in the Azores with allies Britain, Spain and Portugal, Bush made it clear that diplomatic efforts would end by Monday night.
Ivanov, in a ministry statement, said the posibility of a diplomatic-political solution "has not disappeared, just the opposite, it is completely relaistic."
The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, told Russian members of parliament that the United States would inform Russia when it felt all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, a U.S. Embassy official said. A senior military diplomat in Moscow, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the U.S. Central Command had invited Moscow to send a liaison officer to deal with "consequence management" - postwar issues such as humanitarian aid - but that Russia had declined the offer.
Russian diplomats contend that even to discuss postwar issues is to acknowledge the inevitability of war, so they keep their contingency plans very close.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, work at the Russian Embassy continued as usual. However, the Foreign Ministry called on Russian citizens Monday to leave Iraq and not to travel there.
A group of Russian Islamic and Orthodox Christian clergymen left Monday for Iraq, Interfax reported. It quoted Iraq's ambassador to Moscow, Abbas Khalaf, as saying that the delegation would meet with Iraqi officials and participate in prayers for peace.
The chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, called on the world's governments to do everything possible to avoid a war launched "without taking into account the opinion of the world community," Interfax reported.