Washington, 20 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's inability to fulfill its commitments to block the transfer of missile technology to Iran highlights an even more serious problem than the ones that such transfers have already created.
In addition to implying that such transfers are likely to continue regardless of what Russian leaders say, this state of affairs underscores the remarkable weakness of the Russian state as an institution, a weakness that limits both Moscow's ability to act and its reliability as a partner for other countries.
And while most world leaders generally have avoided calling attention to such problems lest they offend the Russians or undercut any chance that these technology flows will be stopped, the situation with regard to missile technology has now become sufficiently serious that some Western diplomats have been forced to address the problem.
Speaking to the press after the Birmingham summit on Sunday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott pointed out that the problem now was not Russian promises but Russian performance on those promises.
Noting that Russian President Boris Yeltsin has frequently committed his country to ending these transfers, Talbott said that the continuing transfer reflected "problems in implementation and enforcement of Russian law and executive orders."
The problem Talbott refers to, of course, could reflect one or more of three different possibilities, each of which would be serious but the most likely of which is also the most dangerous.
The first possibility is that Yeltsin has been telling the Americans what he believes they want to hear even as he and his government pursue a very different policy toward Iran. Such a strategy, hardly unknown in the world of international diplomacy, might even make sense from a Russian perspective despite the fact that it would ultimately put Moscow at odds with Washington.
Indeed, if this were the case, it would suggest that Yeltsin has his political house in order and that Russia now is in a position to conduct a highly sophisticated policy.
But there are three reasons that make this possibility unlikely. Yeltsin's past statements on Iran have seemed remarkably sincere. The disarray in his government on other issues suggests that the regime may be in disarray on this. And there is a long history of what can only be called private enterprise in the selling off abroad of Russian technology.
The second possibility is that the Russian government has tried to win friends in Iran as part of an effort to organize a counterweight to American power in the Middle East but has lost control of the situation.
This possibility seems far more likely. After all, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov has regularly insisted that Moscow should try to build relationships with those countries in the Middle East now at odds with the United States. And Yeltsin himself has been preaching the virtues of a multi-polar world, one in which the U.S. is not the single dominant power.
Under this scenario, some either in the Russian government or outside it may have decided to take advantage of the situation to go further than Yeltsin has promised or than Moscow in general has wanted to go.
But this possibility is less likely than it might appear. Precisely to the extent that Moscow might have been pursuing a coherent and consistent policy toward Iran, the Russian authorities would have been more likely to know what was happening and thus be more able to guarantee what Russians were sending to Iran and even more what they were not.
The third possibility then is the most likely. It is that Yeltsin and his government are not in effective control of the situation, are not able to ensure that what they want and what they promise will in fact happen even on a question of obviously high concern to Russia's Western partners.
No government ever has total control over everything done by its citizens or even by its institutions, but the Russian Federation appears to have significantly less than most. And that implies that the problem with the export of missile technology is likely to be replicated in other and equally dangerous areas.
But more than that, it suggests that there is a significant disconnect between what officials in Moscow say and what Russians in fact do in these areas, a pattern that raises serious questions about just how much in control the Russian Federation authorities are, about the nature of the political system they preside over, and about Russia's reliability as an interlocutor on this and other questions.
As Secretary Talbott has indicated, the West has little choice but to continue the conversation, but equally it has little choice but to be concerned about Moscow's difficulty in keeping its promises.