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You can always tell when an American politician is well and truly washed up, a has-been.

He comes to Russia to meet the tsar so that he can go back to Washington and get the Marine salute at the White House before he divulges the very latest on what the big, bad Russian had to say. Since wash-ups and has-beens are mean with folding-money, their expenses have to be paid for by somebody. Sometimes it’s companies that make airplanes, sometimes soda pop. Ex-Senator Gary Hart used to come when he was still in his prime; ex-President Richard Nixon when he was in his dodders. Now it’s the turn of ex-President George Bush Sr. and ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. So long as Boris Yeltsin was in the Kremlin, he could manage to disguise how washed up his guests were, by comparison with himself. President Vladimir Putin is a different kettle offish.

Putin must return to the United States shortly, and, now that things are going so much worse internationally for the Americans than they had imagined possible the last time Putin met George Bush Jr., it’s no skin off Putin’s nose if he sends his guests back to Washington with a cozy little feeling they aren’t likely to get from reading U.S. Embassy cables or the Washington Post. Not being much of a reader, Bush Jr. prefers to get his intelligence in the form of cozy little feelings.
Besides, Putin is just a little curious himself to see how badly the U.S. government wants to save the necks and fortunes of New Russians like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Never before has an American of Kissinger’s rank wiped his shoes on the Kremlin doormat as the paid agent of a Russian businessman. So Putin can afford himself the pleasure of observing how the legendary warmaker in Vietnam and peacemaker in the Middle East — maybe I’ve got the war and peace back-to-front — lays out the pitch for Khodorkovsky, Kissinger’s current paymaster.

Since Yukos is far from being as secure as a secret service, it’s possible that leaks of Khodorkovsky’s communications with Kissinger could find their way into the public domain. But, then again, the idea that Khodorkovsky has told Kissinger what he needs doing and what he wants done, could be someone’s idea of a joke. Why else would the Russian market listen to the current rumor that Yukos-Sibneft is engaged in negotiations with a U.S. oil major that could lead to the announcement of an equity-stake sale to the big American, either during the Sept. 24 meeting of the Russia-U.S. energy partnership in St. Petersburg or not long after, during the Putin-Bush meeting in the United States? Why on earth would a U.S. oil major think of such a risky venture if the Kremlin is likely to veto it and, maybe, keep two Yukos shareholders in prison, instead of one?

What Khodorkovsky needs Kissinger for right now is plain enough. He wants to know what the Bush Administration is prepared to do if Khodorkovsky agrees to sell, merge or swap his and Platon Lebedev’s shares in Yukos with an American oil company. That the prospect of such a deal led to the arrest in July of Lebedev, Khodorkovsky’s partner and co-shareholder, is already evidence of the Kremlin’s hostility. It is also evidence of Putin’s relative weakness and his lack of any other means to control his country’s capital.

On the other hand, Bush isn’t looking as if he’s made of strong stuff either. The failure of Khodorkovsky’s appeals for White House help to date have encouraged the Kremlin to toughen its position towards the selloff of assets like Yukos and to convince Khodorkovsky that he should expect more trouble if he provokes Putin’s anger in a showdown over who should own Yukos-Sibneft and on what terms. The weakness of the Americans has also accelerated the decline of the pro-Americans inside the Kremlin and exposed with embarrassingly clarity that this faction, led by Alexander Voloshin, the presidential chief of staff, is out of tune with their boss and unable to influence or predict what he will do next. It is already obvious — as an Alfa Bank research note described the position this week — that, if Khodorkovsky tries to sell out to the Americans — the move Sibneft owner Roman Abramovich didn’t dare make — “Yukos-Sibneft is sitting front and center with a large target painted on its forehead.”

But what is Khodorkovsky paying Kissinger for, if not to lobby for him at the White House? If Bush Jr. can persuade Putin to receive Kissinger, then Kissinger may fancy he can do double duty — to persuade Bush that it’s good U.S. policy to endorse the takeover of Yukos when he and Putin meet later this month and to persuade Putin that it would be good Russian policy for him to lay off Khodorkovsky if and when the sell-out takes place.

From Kissinger’s point of view, if he could pull off both assurances — or at least persuade each president of the other’s readiness to oblige for the time being — he could even demonstrate that, in contrast to Nixon’s expensive but fruitless visits, his trip to Moscow will have earned him two of his retainers. The U.S. oil company might even offer him the standard dealmaker’s 5 percent, if Kissinger can claim to have pushed both presidents into accepting the deal, and five percent of several billion dollars is a clean¬up, not a wash-up.

On the other hand, Kissinger’s assurances notwithstanding, U.S. corporate boards of directors must be able to certify that, when they spend their shareholders’ money abroad, they aren’t violating the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. (That’s the new American law against money-laundering and foreign corruption. And that’s one of the vulnerabilities Khodorkovsky cannot escape in this tussle with the Kremlin.) Putin may not dare to send Khodorkovsky to court on similar charges to those holding Lebedev in prison right now. He may even agree with Bush to keep both pairs of presidential hands off. But then the clever boys in the Kremlin shouldn’t have much trouble pointing out to U.S. lawyers doing due diligence for the big oil company that the evidence against Khodorkovsky is strong enough to contravene Sarbanes-Oxley. That’s as good as a veto of the Yukos sale — with the political advantage that it originates from Washington, not Moscow. It’s a wash-up for Kissinger’s percentage, after all

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