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U.S.: Defense Secretary Questions Russia's Commitment To Democracy

Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen says it is uncertain whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is committed to guide his nation's transition to democracy and capitalism. Cohen spoke yesterday (Wednesday) about the challenges facing America in the coming years. Besides Russia, Cohen singled out Iraq, Iran, North Korea, international terrorism, Middle East violence, nationalism and illegal drug trafficking. RFE/RL Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen is questioning whether President Vladimir Putin is committed to complete Russia's transition to democracy.

In a blunt end-of-tenure speech yesterday (Wednesday) at the National Press Club in Washington, Cohen said it is unclear whether Russia is going to make this journey "to free minds and free markets" as have some of its Eastern European neighbors.

"Russia is going to pose a major challenge for the new administration (of incoming President George W. Bush) and I think that we can look to Russia with both hope and also with concern." Speaking 10 days before he leaves office, Cohen emphasized that in some respects Russia has made good progress since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union that put the former Cold War rival on a path toward democracy and a free market economic system.

Cohen said Russia's participation in the Bosnia and Kosovo peacekeeping forces and its willingness to dismantle thousands of nuclear weapons were encouraging developments. He also cited recent cooperation between the U.S. and the Russian military as reason for hope.

Still, Cohen questioned Putin's commitment to democracy.

"At times it seems to me that President Putin is intent on pursuing democracy almost by decree."

Cohen did not elaborate about Putin's approach. However, he made it clear he sees cause for concern, pointing to a recent U.S. intelligence reported that predicted Russia was headed for further decline over the next decade and a half. The defense secretary said the U.S. will have to see whether Russia is going to pursue a course of cooperation and full integration into European affairs and better relations with Washington. Cohen then questioned whether Russia is "going to revert to the past and seek to achieve some kind of major role on the world scene through the use of force or the threat of it."

Cohen also noted that Russia is strongly opposed to U.S. plans to build a national missile defense system. U.S. President-elect George W. Bush has made missile defense a top priority of his incoming administration. Bush takes office on 20 January.

Bush and his national security team visited the Defense Department Wednesday for meetings with top Pentagon officials and briefings on military and security challenges facing America.

Bush was welcomed by Cohen and General Henry Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

It was the first military briefing for Bush, who was accompanied by his top national security aides. They included Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense; Bush's choice for secretary of state, retired general Colin Powell, who held the joint chiefs post under Cheney; and Donald Rumsfeld, Cohen's designated successor who served as defense secretary in the 1970s. They were also accompanied by Condoleezza Rice, Bush's choice for national security adviser.

At his appearance before the National Press Club, Cohen said other challenges facing the new administration include Iran, Iraq, and North Korea and their efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction; ethnic hatreds fueled by nationalism that drove the Balkans to war, violence in the Middle East, illegal drug trafficking and international terrorism.

Turning to Iraq, Cohen said President Saddam Hussein's military does not now pose a threat to its neighbors. He said that because of the long-running economic sanctions against Iraq and the U.S.-British-imposed no-fly zone, the Iraqi military is in a weakened position.

"Saddam Hussein's forces are in a state where he cannot pose a threat to his neighbors at this point."

Cohen said that prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait a decade ago, Baghdad used the bulk of its oil revenues to strengthen its military. But now, Cohen said that 90 percent of Iraqi oil sales is earmarked for buying food, medicine and other non-military items under UN provisions.

Cohen said Saddam Hussein now can cheat and smuggle only on the margins.