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Published: Saturday, 10/6/2001

Putin backs U.S. but arms enemy

The U.S. administration has proclaimed Russia a critical ally in the fight against terrorism. But Russia is sending out mixed messages. It is dangerously cozy with the very countries it pledges to help influence or keep in check.

Last week, the ordinarily icy Russian President Vladimir Putin turned on the sunshine when he gave U.S. military aircraft a right to use Russian airspace. He promised not to lean on former Soviet Central Asian republics considering opening their airbases to United States or NATO military action against Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

Until now, Mr. Putin had said the United States aircraft could only fly over his turf if they were carrying relief supplies. His decision to allow troops, too, has inspired hope that Russia really wants to join civilized countries in their fight against terrorism. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan last week signaled U.S. willingness to take Mr. Putin seriously.

Secretary Rumsfield, ever the salesman, left Uzbekistan with an agreement that will let U.S. troops use bases there. Air Force search-and-rescue crews and some 1,000 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division were dispatched to the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border. Mr. Putin's prior consent had a lot to do with that.

But make no mistake about it: Russia is not a trustworthy friend.

The same week Mr. Putin removed roadblocks for U.S. diplomatic schmoozing in Uzbekistan, Russia signed a multimillion-dollar arms deal with Iran, a country high on the U.S. rogue nations list. Iran - an old nemesis of the United States - officially supports the anti-Taliban campaign, but it's ambivalent, to say the least.

Russia has resumed providing Iran with an effective missile shield against air strikes, in addition to nuclear technology and expert advice on its use. It's a formula for a future nuclear nation that may operate with impunity.

Cash-strapped Russia rushed into an estimated $300-million-a-year weapon deal last week under the smokescreen of pledges to help the United States fight terrorists. Its best-selling merchandise is advanced aircraft and long-range S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, arguably the most efficient anti-aircraft weapon on the market.

Some experts put the total value of the contract at $1.5 billion, which makes Iran Russia's third-largest weapons buyer after China and India.

Throw in Iran's militant Islamic fundamentalists and lack of experience in safeguarding nuclear weapons, and you've got a terrorist threat that makes the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network look like a nursery school picnic.

And if that's not enough to scare you, consider the Russian airliner with 78 people on board that fell into the Black Sea off Russia Thursday. It was hit by a surface-to-air missile likely fired during a Ukrainian military training exercise, U.S. military experts monitoring the area reportedly say.

I can't help but remember a group of drunken Russian military officers I saw at a Moscow pub in 1991. They were celebrating the Scuds, those clumsy, antiquated, Soviet-produced missiles Iraqis lobbed into Israel during Operation Desert Storm.

They weren't toasting the tactics of one side or the other. They were delighted to see the old weapons still had some life in them!

Imagine the danger of “accidental” Iranian launches hundreds of modern Russian missiles will present to aircraft flying anywhere near the Persian Gulf.

At least one popular Moscow newspaper has no difficulty predicting what may happen now that Iran is sure to get the state-of-art SS-300 missile systems.

“Only A Rare Yankee Will Make It to Afghanistan by Air if Iran Gets Ahold of Our Missiles,” wrote Obshaya Gazeta in a headline that ran on the eve of the Russia-Iran deal.

It's hard to view Russia as a trusted U.S. ally, knowing her gun-running greed is aiming missiles at our backs.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at msigov@theblade.com.



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