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U.S/Russia: Analysis from Washington--Trade Flows And Power Alignments

Washington, 21 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - American trade with the non-Russian countries of the former Soviet Union is growing far faster than U.S. trade with Russia itself, a pattern that will have a major impact on Washington's approach to the region.

As noted by our correspondent on Thursday, the U.S. Commerce Department reports that U.S. trade with the non-Russian republics expanded by 53 percent between 1995 and 1996. U.S. exports to these countries nearly doubled and imports from them went up by 27 percent

In contrast, overall U.S. trade with Russia rose only 1 percent over the same period, with imports from Russia actually falling 11.6 percent in the last year.

The total volume of American-Russian trade -- some $ 6.9 billion in 1996 -- still remains much larger than that between the United States and the non-Russian countries of this region -- some $ 2.8 billion for the same period.

But the trend revealed in these figures is likely to continue as the non-Russian countries continue to expand their exports particularly of oil and gas.

And that trend by itself is likely to have a significant impact on American relations with both Russia and the non-Russian countries precisely because of the impact it will have on American corporations and the American consumer.

As trade with the non-Russian countries increases relative to trade with Russia, both the American companies involved and individual Americans affected either as employees or consumers are likely to focus more attention on their new trading partners.

And this interest and attention is likely to lead them to press the American government to pay more attention to and give more support for these states. And such attention could have three major consequences.

First, as more companies become involved in this trade, ever more countries are likely to follow both because of the creation of the infrastructure in these countries needed for trade and because of the tendency of money to follow money.

Second, an expanding American economic presence in these states is likely to lead to an increase in the the diplomatic and political presence there as well. And that could reassure many of these countries that they enjoy the kind of security that close economic ties with a major power often provides.

And third, these several developments could lead to a revision in what has been an article of faith in Washington since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

To the extent that American interest in and involvement with the non-Russian countries increases, ever more Americans may conclude that the fate of the non-Russian countries depends on what happens in Russia rather than only the other way around.

Obviously, none of these developments would lead the U.S. or the West more generally to ignore Russia either economically or even more politically.

Russia will remain an important potential market and source of both raw materials and finished goods. Russian geopolitical power will guarantee that no country would ever fail to include Moscow in its calculations.

And because of this power and its location, Russia has the demonstrated ability to limit the future growth of trade between the non-Russian countries and the West. These new figures may even prompt some in Moscow to urge such a course.

But Russia's continuing political and economic uncertainties are likely to lead ever more Western firms to look to the non-Russian countries as places for investment and trade.

And if past experience is any guide, that trend in economics is likely to lead to one in politics as well.