The former Cold War adversaries agreed a joint declaration, which was read out by President Jacques Chirac at the start of a press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, in Paris.
“There is still an alternative to war, we are sure. The use of force must be only a last resort. Russia, Germany and France are determined to give every chance to the peaceful disarmament of Iraq,” the statement said.
There is no precedent for a decision by two senior Nato allies to join Russia, the former Cold War foe, in a joint statement defying the United States. Russia and France are also permanent members of the UN Security Council with the power of veto, while Germany currently holds temporary membership.
President Putin, starting a two-day state visit to France, said that a military intervention against Baghdad could have “serious consequences”. M. Chirac said “nothing justified” a war today. He said that France, with Russia and Germany, was making a “moral judgement” but not deliberately seeking to damage the transatlantic alliance.
The statement by the three countries went on to repeat, almost word for word, the approach adopted by France at the Security Council last week, calling on the United Nations arms inspectors to be given more time and to be “substantially strengthened”.
Mr Putin said that he was ready to deploy Russian surveillance aircraft in support of the inspection effort.
German ideas, which had built on the French initiative, and which were floated at the weekend, for Iraq to be policed by United Nations troops and placed under a total flight ban, were absent from the statement.
France has formally denied any connection with such a plan, and after it was criticised by Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, Germany appeared yesterday to be quietly dropping the idea.
Peter Struck, the German Defence Minister, who had said on Sunday that he hoped the initiative would receive a “positive response” when presented to the UN Security Council, said yesterday the proposal was not yet ready. “The planning of the governments in Paris and Berlin are not yet so far along that they can be presented in any great detail.”
Mr Blix stressed that increasing the number of inspectors searching for banned weapons was not the issue. “The principal problem is not the number of inspectors but rather the active co-operation of the Iraqi side, as we have said many times,” he said.
The joint statement appeared to leave the door open to a possible climbdown by saying that any “substantial reinforcement” of the inspection regime would be taken “in liaison with the inspectors”.
America and Britain made clear at the weekend they opposed the initiative that calls for the tripling of UN inspectors from their current strength of 100. A Foreign Office spokesman played down the plan yesterday, saying that the reinforcement of the inspectors could not be ruled out, “but the crucial point is the Iraqi attitude”.
John Chipman, the director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “This was a stillborn proposal because for it to have any chance of becoming formalised it would require a UN resolution, and the UK and US would veto it. So there was absolutely no prospect of it seeing the light of day.”
He pointed out that the initiative floated at the weekend would, in effect, rewrite UN resolution 1441 “by shifting the burden of proof back to the Security Council and the UN inspectors rather than on Iraq. It would be the inspectors’ duty to discover rather than that of Iraq to reveal.”
He also predicted problems in implementing the plan because the deployment of UN troops meant that “there would be the possibility of Iraq taking further hostages. It would also place the inspectors at greater risk.”
Significantly, the Russia-German-French declaration also called for a ceasefire in the verbal hostilities between the United States and those allies that refuse to accept its arguments in favour of an early war in Iraq.
Moscow, Paris and Berlin said that the “debate should be conducted in the spirit of friendship which characterises our relationship with the United States and other countries”.