Washington, March 28 (RFE/RL) - Since Yevgeny Primakov became Russian foreign minister, there has been a disturbing trend in Moscow's foreign policy: a tendency to seek expanded ties precisely with those countries that for one reason or another are international pariahs.
On the one hand, this is a reflection of Moscow's current weakness, of its need to find partners who have nowhere else to turn. But on the other, it raises questions about the Russian government's intentions with respect to the international community as a whole.
In the last month, the Russian government has reached out to virtually all the world's pariah states. During the conflict between Beijing and Taiwan, Moscow clearly took the side of the mainland. This week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's special assistant for military cooperation visited Syria and Russian deputy prime minister Oleg Davydov spent six days in Libya.
On Wednesday, Moscow indicated that it would provide training to Iranian nuclear engineers in Moscow's leading atomic power studies center. Just a few days earlier, Russian officials again visited Iraq to show their support for Saddam Hussein's efforts to lift the U.N. embargo of that country. And three weeks ago, Moscow sent a military sales mission to Columbia just days after the United States had placed restrictions on that country's government for its failure to fight the drug trade more diligently.
In each case, one can find good and even defensible reasons for Moscow's actions; but taken together, these actions suggest that Moscow is prepared to undermine the international community's efforts to use sanctions and embargos to force a change in behaviour.
Not only does that reduce the impact of these specific sanctions, but it reduces the threat of sanctions in other cases. If countries can count on support from at least one major power regardless of what they do, ever more countries are likely to risk the displeasure of the United Nations or other international bodies.
But the meaning of this latest thrust of Russian policy will have three other consequences as well:
First, it will call into question Moscow's role as a cooperative member of the international community. If Russia comes to be seen as a supporter of international outlaws, no one will want to work with Moscow, and the Russian government will find itself classed with precisely the people it has chosen to ally itself with.
Second, Moscow's involvement with such states will likely serve as a red flag to Russia's broader foreign policy goals. Ever more people in the West are likely to ask just what Moscow is up to if its foreign minister, a man who was involved with anti-Western states in the past, is now seeking alliances with the countries that have been most interested in using the oil weapon against Europe and the United States.
And third, Moscow is likely to discover that its involvement with these states will have an impact on Russia's own actions. If a country makes allies of this kind, it tends to be trapped into policies and approaches that may lead that state down a path further than it had intended to go.
Russians interested in having Moscow integrate into the international community, Russia's neighbors who must be immediately concerned about Moscow's intentions, and the West which wants to build a more peaceful and lawful world can all hope that these latest steps by the Russian government do not indicate that Russia has chosen a separate and dangerous road.