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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

Russia a casualty of the war in Iraq

U.S.-Russian relations took a nosedive since the start of the war in Iraq.

Remember that Russia is saturated with poorly guarded weapons of mass destruction. So these relations are as vital to the United States as ever.

But don't run for cover yet. Chances are they won't crash anytime soon, despite serious setbacks.

Consider:

  • On March 22, Russia formally protested after a U.S. spy plane reportedly flew close to the Russian border with Georgia.

  • The next day, the White House accused Moscow of providing banned military equipment to Iraq - anti-tank guided missiles, night-vision goggles, and satellite jamming devices - that endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers.

  • The Kremlin made a public show denying these charges and accusing the White House of using Russia as a scapegoat to explain battlefield failures in Iraq.

  • A telephone conversation between President Bush and his Russian counterpart ensued. The White House described the talk as “tense,” Reuters reported.

  • Finally, on Wednesday Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress that failure by Moscow to stop private Russian firms from selling Iraq military equipment would constitute a “major difficulty” in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

    So what's the meaning of all that?

    The United States is keeping a close eye on Russia now that the war in Iraq is on. Russia, taken by the momentum of its criticism of the war, is over-reacting.

    The U.S. wariness of its wavering ally makes sense in wartime.

    First, Russia has been vehemently protesting against the allied invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam who has courted Russia with preferred access to Iraqi oil fields.

    Second, the new U.S. military doctrine of preventive strike was not lost on Russian military analysts, who view it as a threat.

    Third, many of Russian military strategists are Soviet-bred anti-Americans dreaming about a chance to reassemble the Soviet Union.

    Moreover, quite a few Russian military commanders are disciples of retired Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the former Russian Defense Ministry's foreign relations chief. The general has led an anti-U.S. campaign in the media ever since the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavian Serbs, who have a lot in common, culturally and religiously, with ethnic Russians.

    They would like to “adopt” the U.S. military doctrine of preventive strike. They may even wish to “apply” it in former Soviet republics such as Georgia and the neighboring Azerbaijan while the world is preoccupied with the war in Iraq.

    Georgia has annoyed the Kremlin by aspiring to become a NATO member and by failing to deny its mountainous border areas to Chechen rebels, who for a time used it to hide from the Russian troops. Azerbaijan has accepted Chechen rebels as political refugees and - most important - is rich in oil.

    Mr. Ivashov has already issued his list of Russia's strategic priorities in his article published recently by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a popular Moscow daily. They include “forming ... an alternative to the U.S. military dominance” and “developing and fostering partnerships with countries ready for a political and military alliance with Russia.”

    But I would not worry too much about Mr. Ivashov and Co., yet.

    The Kremlin has yet to get control of Russia proper, with the war in its Chechnya province far from over. It must realize that another military adventure would destabilize Russia to the point of no return.



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