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Published: Saturday, 10/27/2001

Russia's support likely to cost U.S.

I could not believe my ears when Secretary of State Colin Powell emerged from a meeting Oct. 19 with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and declared, “Not only is the Cold War over, the post-Cold War period is also over.”

A man with his intellect and military background ... you'd think he would have learned by now. The rattlesnake that bit you yesterday may be your friend today, but he's still a rattlesnake.

America is seeking safety in numbers, rushing into questionable alliances with countries like Russia and Iran, its natural wariness blown away in the hysteria of suicide bombers and anthrax. But I think that a cost-benefit analysis is in order before we make expensive commitments we might soon regret.

So far Moscow's support has been rhetorical, save for its minimal and covert military backing of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

The moment of truth will arrive later, when the United States is finished with the Taliban and turns its weapons on Iraq, Russia's long-time prot g .

Russia needs Iraq for all the wrong reasons. This Arab country is a rich potential market for Russia's weapons and sensitive technology. This is why Russia consistently fights United Nations trade sanctions against Iraq.

To be sure, right now Moscow has reasons to warm up to Washington:

w The U.S. is bombing the Taliban - a source of fighters for the secessionist Russian province of Chechnya and drug trafficking through Russia. There's little love lost between Russia and the Taliban.

w Heightened awareness of the threat of bioterrorism and suicide bombers has pushed U.S. missile defense plans down the priority list. The “Star Wars” missile defense system that was so frightening a few months ago is on indefinite hold.

w Finally, America's post-Sept. 11 feelings toward militant Islamic radicals takes the pressure off Moscow's war of attrition against Islamic rebels in Chechnya. The new “war on terrorism” has all but silenced international criticism of atrocities by Russian troops there.

Chechnya was a major hurdle to Russia's membership application to the World Trade Organization. But not any more, it seems, since Washington recently dispatched envoys to Moscow to discuss giving Russia the key to the clubhouse.

No wonder the Kremlin is happy. Even Russian chauvinists and hard-line military commanders have limited their discontent of this pro-American posture to a muffled rumble.

It won't always be so.

Many a Russian editorial has rightfully warned readers with headlines such as, “Russia will not let America bomb Iraq and Iran the way it bombed Yugoslavia.”

They make a disturbing point.

Neither Iraq nor Iran is dominated by fellow Slavs like Yugoslavia, but Russia needs buyers for its weapons. Russia is increasingly dependent on weapon sales now that its crude oil export revenues are down.

Our administration is trying to reassure us by forging anti-terrorist alliances worldwide. But it's our job to remind them not to deal away our trump cards before the stakes grow large and the true high-rollers sit down at the table.

If you need an example, note how the U.S. delayed striking Taliban troops near Kabul to appease Pakistan. Who knows what restriction Russia might impose when it's time to deal with Iraq?

Where will our “new era” in U.S.-Russian relations be when Moscow walks out on Washington, like it did in 1999 when U.S. warplanes bombed Yugoslavia?

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



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