Will Russia's attitude towards the so-called "rogue states" (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea) result in a new divide between Washington and Moscow, scuttling the newfound partnership between the United States and Russia?
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, such a prospect seemed improbable. Both sides stressed the new positive elements in the U.S.-Russian relationship, preferring to mute the differences. True, it was President Vladimir Putin who was more inclined to follow such a pattern. After all, he chose not to make any serious fuss about Washington's decision to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM treaty in early December 2001. Putin merely noted that the United States was committing a "mistake", but nonetheless concluded that this mistake would not have any drastic consequences for the new Russian-American alliance. The Russian president also preferred to turn a blind eye to the decision to send American military advisers to Georgia. He also accepted the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council as compensation for the expected admission of new Central and East European members, including the Baltic States, into NATO.
Of course, it can be argued that Putin did not have any choice but to accept the second wave of NATO enlargement and the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Nevertheless, there has been a convergence between Russian and American interests on a number of major issues, such as non-proliferation, the fight against international terrorism and nuclear disarmament. However, there continues to be significant differences in the ways in which Moscow and Washington interpret those dangers (as well as the best ways to cope with them). Moreover, Russia has divergent interests toward those states grouped together by the Bush Administration as the so-called "axis of evil" (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea).
Russia sees no value in endorsing a unilateral assault by the United States on Iraq while this option is still only "under discussion." After all, this strategy is hotly debated in America itself. Unlike in 1990-91, America's own NATO allies in Europe seem rather reluctant to offer a helping hand to Washington in a possible attack on Iraq. Finally, the United States has not offered any serious incentives to Russia in exchange for Moscow's endorsement of an American attack. Unlike the United States, Russia continues to have economic interests in Iraq. Baghdad owes Moscow more than $8 billion, while a number of lucrative deals have been signed by Russian oil companies to exploit Iraq's oil fields. Again this, Washington has only provided incentives that are primarily of a punitive nature: if Moscow does not follow suit, its relations with America may suffer. Thus, while sticks are present carrots are awfully absent. Even though Putin has no personal sympathy for Saddam Hussein whatsoever (last year the Russian president declined to meet Tariq Aziz, Saddam's envoy to Russia, provoking a fury in Baghdad), he nonetheless has concluded that Russia's interests are better served by a "prudent disagreement" with Washington over possible military operations. In this approach Putin enjoys the support of powerful Russian lobbies eager to exploit the commercial opportunities that exist in Iraq.
Iran is another case where Russia's general alignment with the United States over issues of nuclear non-proliferation enters into conflict with its practical interests. The influential Ministry of Atomic Energy wants to retain Iran as an important client for the purchase and servicing of Russian-manufactured nuclear reactors. Key elements within the Foreign Ministry view Iran not as a threat but an important economic and geopolitical partner ensuring stability in the Caspian Sea basin. Despite ongoing efforts dating back to the first term of the Clinton Administration, Washington has enjoyed only limited success in its attempts to curtail the Russo-Iranian relationship. It is significant that Vladimir Putin's only major public disagreement with George Bush at the summit in Moscow last May concerned their difference in attitudes towards Iran.
Unlike the United States, Russia does not feel threatened by Tehran. Moscow does not associate the threat of radical Islam with Iran but rather the Chechen terrorists. [Significantly, Iran has never extended any support to Chechen separatists and has encouraged Muslims in Russia to support the existing government.] As for the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Moscow considers this a remote possibility at best and at worst, probably unavoidable, given that Israel, India, and Pakistan all succeeded in surmounting the nuclear threshold
Russia's relations with North Korea are another example of "unparallel interests" between Moscow and Washington. Both want North Korea to change, both support the idea of an eventual re-unification of the two Koreas, and neither wants to see Pyongyang upset the regional peace. However, Moscow continues to insist that these goals would be better achieved by engaging rather than ignoring, threatening or isolating the North Korean regime. Moreover, Moscow is seriously interested in reviving the Trans-Korean railroad in order to link it to the Trans-Siberian railway, thus making Russia an effective bridge between the economically booming Far East and European markets. According to some estimates this project would generate over $1 billion dollars a year and help to revive Russia's fledgling far-eastern economy. Moving this project forward was the centerpiece of Putin's third meeting with Kim Il-Jong that took place in the Russian Far East at the end of August.
Neither the Russian government nor Russian public opinion admires the nature or practices of the regimes in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. However, Russia's historical relations with these countries are very different from the American experience. None of them have ever declared Russia the embodiment of world evil or was at any time suspected of engaging in terrorist activities against Russia. Therefore, while the Russian public has little sympathy for Saddam Hussein, "the Beloved Leader", or the ayatollahs in power in Tehran, it would be difficult to foment a public climate in Russia which would be comparable to the one existing in the United States.
Equally important for Moscow to consider is the issue of Russia's status as a key Eurasian power. Why should Russia, for example, unconditionally support an American attack against Iraq, when it is still not a formal ally of the United States and when America's own allies largely disagree with Washington as to the necessity of such an action? Does "partnership" with the United States mean that Moscow must follow the American lead in Eurasia, even at the cost of its own interests? This question is especially pertinent in the light of the debate raging in Russia over what exactly Putin has gained from his newly declared "alliance-partnership" with the United States.
Russia's relations with these three states under Putin can hardly be described as a deliberate policy intended to counter American interests. Rather, Russia is following its own interests, while trying not to irritate unnecessarily the United States. Since Washington has provided no effective set of incentives that outweigh the practical benefits Russia derives from continuing to deal with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Russia will continue to waver between a traditional view of its national interests and a desire to maintain a stable and promising partnership with the United States.
Alexey Pushkov is Editor-in-chief and anchor of the Russian television news and analysis program Post Scriptum, which appears on Center-TV. A former speechwriter for Mikhail Gorbachev, he is a member of The National Interest Editorial Board and a senior advisor to The Nixon Center.