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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- A New Threat To National Security

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's representative at the special UN General Assembly session on AIDS says that the disease now threatens the national security of his country, an acknowledgement of both the speed of the spread of HIV infections in Russia and the impact that illness is having both there and elsewhere.

In an interview given before his departure to New York, Deputy Health Minister Gennady Onishchenko noted that HIV infections arrived in Russia "six years later than elsewhere," and that the number of HIV-infected people and AIDS cases is still much lower than in the West. But the rates of infection in Russia, Onishchenko said, are growing so rapidly that "it is becoming a threat to the national security of the country."

Russia is not the only country threatened in this way, Onishchenko said. There are more than 56 million people around the world now infected with the HIV virus, he said. That number is increasing every month by 440,000. And AIDS -- the disease that HIV infection causes -- has already claimed almost 22 million lives.

Onishchenko's comments call attention to a fundamental problem that countries face in dealing with this illness in the circumstances of globalization.

On the one hand, even though the United Nations meeting this week is taking place under the slogan "global actions for a global crisis," most countries still view the spread of this disease through a national prism. That is, they consider both the threat and their response to it first and foremost in terms of their own domestic situation.

As a result, it is likely to be extremely hard at least in the short run for the UN to assemble the $9 billion in annual commitments officials say is needed to fight this disease. That in turn means that the international community is unlikely to arrange for the transfer of resources from the wealthiest countries to the poorest ones in Africa and Asia, which currently are most affected by HIV.

But on the other hand, Onishchenko's remarks call attention to why at least some countries that have not yet been affected so immediately may decide that they have to take action now -- and on an international basis. Until the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia and its neighbors were among the least-affected parts of the world regarding AIDS. But now that has changed dramatically, as this region has opened up to the rest of the world.

Russia's Kaliningrad region is one of the most seriously affected places in the world, Ukraine has a major HIV problem, and ever greater numbers of people there are coming down with a disease for which there is, as yet, no vaccine and no cure. None of the countries in this region have the resources to deal with this disease on their own, despite some brave words by Onishchenko that Russia has some "interesting experience" in fighting the disease.

And as a result, Russia and some of its neighbors are likely to press for an international solution to a problem no country can solve on its own. By casting the issue of AIDS in terms of his country's national security, the Russian deputy health minister has clearly signaled Moscow's intention.

The outcome of the UN session this week is thus uncertain, depending as it does on whether countries define their national interests in the short term or over the long run. But regardless of the immediate outcome of this meeting, its focus on a new kind of threat to the security of UN members may become a turning point not only in the fight against AIDS but in international cooperation more generally.

As international attention is focused on the AIDS crisis, more countries are likely to come forward with assistance. And because this is a threat to national security on which all countries can agree, it may help to create the conditions under which the countries of the world will view other threats to national security in common -- and thus approach them in a common way as well.

Consequently, what may appear to some as a narrow defense of national interests may prove in the end to be a defense of the interests of humanity in the broadest possible terms.