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Russia: Putin's Ties With 'Axis of Evil' Not Likely To Cool Relations With U.S.

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia has publicly stepped up its recent contacts with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the three states in U.S. President George W. Bush's so-called "axis of evil." Some analysts say the moves are meant to keep Moscow's foreign-policy options open after Washington failed to reciprocate large concessions made by Russian President Vladimir Putin following 11 September. However, most observers say Moscow is unlikely to risk seriously alienating Washington as it pursues its war on terrorism and considers a possible military campaign in Iraq.

Moscow, 21 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A military band greeted North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il today as he disembarked from his special armored train in Russia's Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-na-Amure.

It is not the first time high-ranking Russian officials are laying out the red carpet for Kim. Just last summer, the aircraft-averse North Korean leader snarled railroad traffic across Russia by taking a train to a grand reception in Moscow in a cross-country journey that took nearly two weeks.

That was before the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, which brought Moscow closer to Washington than it had been for years. But this week, Kim's train is back in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet the North Korean leader in Vladivostok on 23 August to discuss economic cooperation.

The talks will be the latest in a string of well-publicized contacts between the leaders of Russia and the three "axis-of-evil" states, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, which U.S. President George W. Bush says are seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

At a time when the U.S. is stepping up its war on terrorism and considering a possible military campaign in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, Russia's growing ties with the axis-of-evil states would seem to put its relationship with Washington at risk. But some observers say the ties, while an assertion of autonomy, are not meant as a rebuff to Russia's allies in the West.

Viktor Kremenyuk is an analyst at Moscow's U.S.A.-Canada Institute. He said much of Putin's "firm and independent" approach to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea is a result of disappointment over Bush's failure to reciprocate concessions made by Moscow over the past year. Russia has allowed U.S. troops into former Soviet states and accepted Washington's withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but the U.S. has failed to respond in kind. Kremenyuk said: "Putin was very open to cooperation. He was ready to go very far and accepted the U.S. position on missile defense, Central Asia, and many other questions. Even when it harmed his own position at home a little, when it harmed his relations with [Russian] nationalists, he agreed with some actions of the United States, but the United States essentially gave him nothing in return."

Kremenyuk said Putin was likely hoping for at least a restructuring of Russian debt, a large amount of which falls due next year, an important time politically because of parliamentary elections in December. But the Bush administration failed even to pressure Congress into lifting the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions aimed at curbing trade with repressive communist countries.

Putin's recent advances toward Iran, Iraq, and North Korea may reflect a cooling in Moscow's relations with Washington. But U.S. officials have played down a possible rift, saying Russia can use its influence to help put pressure on Washington's enemies.

Putin's latest moves, however, seem motivated more by economic interests than political ones. On 18 August, Moscow said it plans to sign a five-year, $40 billion economic-cooperation and trade agreement with Iraq. The announcement was seen as an indirect statement of opposition to a possible U.S. attack on Iraq precisely when the White House is seeking support for its plans to topple Saddam.

Washington says it is not against the Moscow-Baghdad deal as long as it abides by United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iraq. Moscow and Baghdad both say it does.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri plans to visit Moscow in September to discuss relations with the UN and Baghdad's recent statements that it would once again allow weapons inspectors into the country.

News of the Iraq deal comes a month after Moscow unveiled a plan to help build five nuclear reactors in Iran. An $800 million reactor is already nearing completion. The White House sees Russian cooperation with Iran as more of a threat than its other contacts. U.S. officials, citing Iran's abundance of oil, say the reactors will most likely be used not for energy but to develop nuclear weapons.

Russian and Iranian officials met in Moscow on 21 August to discuss controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as U.S. diplomats in Russia again raised concern over the possible crossover uses of nuclear technology.

Celeste Wallander is director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Moscow's current relations with U.S. rivals like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea show that Moscow is more interested in keeping its options open than in simply maintaining good relations with the United States.

The deals with Iraq and Iran, she added, have to do with narrow commercial interests and not broad national-security interests. "I think that these policies and these relationships -- the inspiration for them, the motivation for them on the Russian side -- is not to be counter to the United States. [The policies and relationships] have their own logic and their own advantages, and because of that, we, the United States, have very little leverage over these issues," Wallander said.

Wallander said Putin is trying to balance the competing economic and political interests at home that influence foreign policy, such as the oil lobby and hawkish officials. In that, Wallander said, Russia's foreign policy is normal, like that of any other country, specially as Putin tries to develop Russia's tiny economy and restore the country's position as a global power.

Putin skillfully demonstrated his political prowess last week by boldly squelching long-running plans for a union between Russia and another Western pariah, Belarus. He seized the initiative from the hands of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, announcing his own radical and unrealistic proposal for a merger in terms impossible for the Belarusian leader to accept.

Meanwhile, how far is Russia willing to pursue its interests at the expense of possibly weakening ties with Washington? Kremenyuk said Putin has no intention of curbing his cooperation with Iran and other countries. "He'll fully continue to strengthen relations with Iran and won't enter into any agreements with the United States on that question. Concerning Iraq, I think he'll not only protest the bombing, but will also sign the agreement that will at least set out the size of Russia's interests in Iraq. And with [North] Korea, he'll also conduct talks and complain a little about what Washington says about that," Kremenyuk said.

But Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of Moscow's Politika Foundation, echoed an observation expressed by many Russian officials in stressing that Russia has been cooperating with all three axis-of-evil countries for years, and that the latest moves are not in any way a threat to relations with Washington. "For Russia, economic and political and any other relations with the United States are much more important than relations with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. At the same time, Russia is not likely to turn away from its economic interests in those regions if they don't contradict the interests of the global community," Nikonov said.

The perception that Moscow is using its relations with U.S. enemies to ruffle Washington, Nikonov said, is itself a Cold War relic.