February 20, 2003

February 20, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Russia-U.S.: A Beautiful Friendship?

With the United States and Iraq moving closer to war, America is finding out who its friends really are.

Dozens of countries have lined up alongside the United States, including Great Britain, Spain and the Czech Republic. More can be expected to get on board if war breaks out.

The case of Russia is particularly fascinating. Recently, Russia's been more a pain in the neck than a friend at the United Nations, opposing U.S. efforts to use force against Saddam Hussein. But our long-time Cold War enemy has the potential to be a great ally in a post-Saddam Middle East and the continuing global war on terror.

Mind you, Russia could be a great friend. Its recent track record of cooperation with the United States is mixed. On one hand, Russia sided with Germany and France to block military action against Iraq, continues to build a nuclear reactor in Iran and recently held talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

On the other hand, it is allied with America in the war on terrorism. After the Sept. 11th attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the United States against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He overruled his defense minister and let the U.S. military deploy troops and fly over Russian territory. Russia also supplied and trained forces for the Northern Alliance, which overthrew the Taliban. Finally, it permitted the re-supply of U.S. forces in Afghanistan through its ports and railways, greatly cutting U.S. costs.

There are many reasons why Putin did this, but here's the main one: Osama bin Laden's taped remark that the attack on civilians at a Moscow theater last October was part of his jihad against the West. This proved Putin's belief that Russia is also a terrorist target and is vulnerable to Sept. 11-style attack. And Putin, a former KGB chief, doesn't like being vulnerable.

It's true that Moscow and Washington differ fundamentally on Russia's relations with Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In the debates over the U.N. Security Council resolution on weapons inspections in Iraq, for example, Russia opposed language that would have explicitly authorized the use of force.

But Moscow's ties to rogue states are driven primarily by economic motives. Russia seeks to profit from multi-billion-dollar oil, gas and nuclear power deals -- and arms sales -- to pay off billions in Soviet-era Iraqi debt. As the resolution was being crafted, Baghdad disingenuously claimed that it might sign a $40 billion, 10-year trade agreement with Russia.

The Bush administration should work closely with Russia to develop alternative policies for dealing with rogue states -- policies that would threaten neither country's security interests. As noted in The Heritage Foundation policy guidebook, "Agenda 2003" the United States should:

  • Seek Russia's collaboration on the political make-up of post-Saddam Iraq. The administration should make clear that, once Saddam Hussein is removed from power, it will expect the new Iraqi government to make good on the $7 billion to $8 billion Iraq owes Russia. Russian forces also could participate in policing Iraq, and Russian companies could retain their oil rights and help rebuild it.

  • Establish closer ties with Russian intelligence services for fighting terrorism. This could include joint intelligence operations to penetrate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to identify and intercept their sources of funding and weapons. Such operations also could involve Russian intelligence networks in the Muslim world.

  • Declare the wing of Chechen separatists responsible for the hostage crisis in Moscow a terrorist group. Washington also should support Russia's request that the Chechen extremist leaders be extradited from their Middle Eastern havens.

  • Expand oil and energy ties with Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The goal here would be to lessen U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Oil companies from this region that comply with U.S. corporate government and accounting standards should be allowed to access U.S. private-sector investment to expand their exports to global markets. The United States also should support construction of a 1,864-mile pipeline from Western Siberia to the Artic port of Mermansk. Oil from that pipeline can be exported directly to the United States.

Russia and America were allies in World War II. Now, in this new world war against terrorism, we have an opportunity to be allies again, but with a twist -- friends not only because we have common enemies, but because we have basic, common democratic and economic values that include a world free of terrorism. To borrow a line from Hollywood, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Ariel Cohen is a research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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