Within weeks in Russia, a bus stop, two passenger airliners in flight, and a subway station were blown up. The news, as I am writing this report, is that there are more than 250 people, many of whom are children, dead as Russian special forces troopers took back a school after terrorists invaded a back-to-classes celebration and held the students and their families hostage.
Russian authorities suspect terrorism by the Chechens or by foreign radical Muslim fundamentalists who hold a grudge against Russia over the war in Chechnya. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the attacks amounted to a war.
At the same time, Russia's ambassador to the fundamentalist Iran continues to defend the Iranian nuclear program as a safe investment. Russia has for years provided nuclear technology and material to Iran, which last week announced plans to restart centrifuges and process large quantities of uranium, enough, experts say, to produce four or five nuclear warheads. Russia refuses to give it up, despite pressure from the United States.
At a glance, this simply makes no sense.
Indeed, how do you reconcile the grief Russia is suffering from the Muslim fundamentalists with helping a fundamentalist state to acquire the ability to produce nuclear weapons?
But what's bad for Russia is not necessarily bad for the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And what's good for the Kremlin may be lethal for the Russian people.
Six years ago, I quoted some Russian experts who explained why Russia so doggedly insisted on pursuing its strategic ties with regimes in Iraq and Iran.
Their analysis helps resolve the apparent contradiction.
The advice was to follow the money. It's simple: Russia is the world's second largest oil exporter, whose economy depends heavily on oil exports. As such, it is interested in maintaining a brewing conflict in the Gulf region to make sure oil supplies from there are disrupted often enough to keep the oil prices high.
The Kremlin continued to support and encourage Saddam Hussein to the point he got incredulous of the U.S. resolve to invade and failed to provide proof he had no weapons of mass destruction programs. The Russian experts predicted back in 1998 that a conflict in the Persian Gulf would raise crude oil prices from about $15 a barrel at the time to up to $50 a barrel. They were right.
So the Kremlin would not really mind if Iran were to get carried away with its nuclear ambitions and the United States got bogged down in another war in the Gulf, this time in Iran. This would ensure further budget surpluses, to be diverted to the military bureaucracy, to whom the Putin regime owes its power.
Moreover, the Kremlin continues an atrocious war in Chechnya, breeding terrorists. It only serves to keep the populace in fear and tighten the reins over the country's cash flow.
At the same time, the Kremlin does not forget to keep up appearances of statesmanship, planning to increase the defense budget by more than a quarter, seemingly to feed and equip at least its "elite" troops called upon to fight terrorism. But this is nothing but a public relations stunt and a payoff to the brass.
The question is how much longer Russia will bear to lose hundreds of lives because of Kremlin ulterior motives or whether it will wake up before terrorist-activated nuclear weapons kill thousands more.
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