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Perspective
Volume XIII, Number 1 (September - October 2002)

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WHO WILL BE RUSSIA'S BEST FRIEND? By PAVEL FELGENHAUER(1)

A year ago, after the 9/11 jet terrorist attacks on America, Russia's President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to offer condolence by phone to President George W. Bush. When the United States decided to attack and overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Russia allowed the use of its airspace to fly supplies and troops into Central Asia. Putin also permitted the stationing of US soldiers in former Soviet bases in Central Asia -- against the expressed opinion of most of his military commanders.

Moscow supplied tanks and sizable amounts of other heavy military equipment, together with tons of munitions, fuel and spare parts to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (2) in Afghanistan. Moscow shared with Washington intelligence information and its Afghan experience, as well as contacts with its allies inside Afghanistan. Russian military supplies were used in organizing a robust ground offensive by united Afghan anti-Taliban forces that in cohesion with US air attacks and special forces operations toppled the al-Qaeda-backed regime.

Such US-Russian linked actions in Afghanistan were followed by Putin's decision to close a Soviet base in Cuba that spied on the United States, and a naval base in Vietnam. Many observers, who for years had advocated a long-term, strategic alliance between Russia and the West, believed that Putin at long last had made a resolute decision: to part with previous policies of having evenhanded partnerships with the US and Europe, on the one side, and rogue anti-Western regimes on the other (the "multipolar world" foreign policy doctrine of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov).

After the Afghanistan successes, Washington did its best to convince the Kremlin to "reconsider" its relations with Iran. In January 2002, US Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf came to Moscow to discuss nonproliferation, accompanied by a large delegation, including officials from the energy and defense departments. The Iran connection in fact was one of the main issues under discussion.

The US team insisted that, after 11 September, fundamental changes in relations were taking place and there was a major convergence of interests between Russia and the US. Iran actively supports terrorism and is aspiring to obtain nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies, the Americans stressed. Therefore, Moscow should not supply Tehran with such capabilities.

In this initial major US-Russian discussion of the Iran connection after the September attacks, members of the Wolf delegation acknowledged that Moscow has a special relationship with Tehran. However, it argued also that "there are other fields for Russia to make economic gains, than transferring weapons and nuclear technologies to Iran."

Wolf offered Russia different possible compensations, if it "reconsidered" its Iran link. At the same time, it was pointed out that Iran was not a side issue -- there was a number of laws passed by Congress that would not go away while Russia continued with Iran. US-Russian relations "cannot move forward while Russia is still closely involved with Iran and Iran is supporting terrorism and aspiring to nuclear weapons," US diplomats stressed.

However, the Wolf mission did not make much progress on the Russia-Iran issue. It was assumed in Washington that a number of individuals in Moscow, especially in the foreign ministry, did not yet "get the message" that relations between the two former Cold War adversaries had changed fundamentally. Therefore, the issue was promoted to the agenda of the two presidents at the May 2002 summit in Moscow -- to bypass those rigid, middle-level Soviet-style bureaucrats (as it was viewed in Washington). US representatives, moreover, spelled out in detail the advantages Russia might gain if it ceased its trade in nuclear technology and arms with Iran, hoping thus to seduce not only the Kremlin, but Russian companies and organizations, to abandon their ties with Iran.

A high-ranking US diplomat, directly involved in promoting a bargain that would involve a "reconsideration" of the Russo-Iranian link, gave me some of the details: The US military in Afghanistan was encountering difficulties using its transport helicopters. The mountains are high, the air is sparse, hot and dusty, and regular transport choppers were having problems taking payloads to high-altitude battlefields, where the US troops and their allies were trying to eliminate the "pockets" of al-Qaeda and Taliban diehards.

At the same time American soldiers had gained some experience flying in (Northern Alliance) Soviet-made Mi-8 helicopters, specially designed for use in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Soviets in Afghanistan had run into the same difficulties with military choppers built during the Cold War to fight in the European theater. Consequently, special "Afghan" helicopter modifications were made with enhanced engines -- planes that could fly easily at an altitude of 4km and even managed to fly over 5km-high mountain ridges, going at full speed.

The Pentagon was ready to purchase a number of Russian-made "Afghan" design helicopters -- but only after Moscow contracts its ties with Tehran, the US official said.

Washington was prepared, moreover, to order NASA to procure more services from the Russian space agency and to pay for some of the work on the International Space Agency that up to now the Russians had been doing for free. The only obstacle was the Iranian link.

Last year, the Russian parliament passed a law allowing the import and storing of foreign nuclear waste -- to the tune of up to $20 billion in 20 years. A year has passed and not a single barrel of foreign waste has arrived. Taiwan was viewed as the first major radioactive import source by proponents of the nuclear waste legislation. Taiwan has a number of nuclear power stations and sizeable amounts of waste it wishes to move. However, the Taiwan reactors are US-made and Washington has veto power over any future use of the spent nuclear fuel.

"I believe it's a good idea for Russia to take nuclear waste, store it somewhere in its vast wilderness and earn billions of dollars. But we will block the Taiwan deal and not allow the Russian Nuclear Power Ministry to earn the money while it continues to build the nuclear power reactor in Iran at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf," a US official told me.

The US incentives were clearly designed to appease specific Russian interest groups. The prospective helicopter deal should have modified the attitude of the military-industrial complex that was planning to sell Iran jets, as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. More money from NASA should have made the Russian space agency happy and helped to stop ballistic missile technology transfers. The nuclear waste from Taiwan prospective was designed to make the nuclear power ministry abandon the Bushehr project.

However, the incentives did not work. The main problem in trying to "pay off" Moscow for "good behavior" and to reimburse it for losses it may encounter when it scraps multibillion-dollar deals with rogue states is that even if, on balance, Russia as a state were to end up in the black, specific influential figures and entities, deeply involved in deals with Iran, might obtain little or no compensation at all.

Arms sales and nuclear transfer deals are totally nontransparent, especially if undemocratic (rogue) regimes are involved. If the Pentagon or NASA were to procure something in Russia, under the watchful eye of the US public accounting services, embezzlement would be much harder to carry off, than when uranium isotope purification equipment, or nuclear reactors, or arms, are shipped to, say, Iran or China.

Weapons, nuclear materials, and equipment that are exported or planned for sale in the coming years all are Soviet in origin. Most of the materials and equipment in fact was produced in Soviet times and today is merely repainted or refurbished and then sold as new. The "production cost" of such repainted, sometimes second-hand items, is negligible, compared to the price tag foreigners pay. The "producers" pay virtually no taxes, pretending all the material was newly made and, because of the supposedly high costs, the sale did not generate much profit. Thus, few if any taxes are owed.

Of course, the authorities, the Kremlin, even the buyers are aware of this scam, but none of them cares: For their money, the rogue states obtain usable Soviet-made weapons or nuclear equipment. The massive unofficial profits are shared out as bribes, with Kremlin officials, allegedly, pocketing the lion's cut. Foreign officials often also obtain their portion of cash kickback.

Now imagine a high-ranking Russian official who is expected to approve, gratis, a clean transparent multimillion- (or even multibillion-) dollar deal with a US government agency in return for scrapping an opaque multibillion-dollar agreement with good old pals in Baghdad, or Tehran, or Tripoli, or Damascus. What will be his response? Most likely he'll do his best to shoot down the US-sponsored initiative through bureaucratic intrigues, while, at the same time, leaking anti-American stories to pet journalists, in order to provide a plausible political pretext for his actions.

Led by self-interest and, no doubt, by inner ideological predisposition, generals, diplomats, arms makers and nuclear technology traders, oligarchies that do not want Russia to be truly open to the world, with high-ranking bureaucrats and prominent journalists on their payroll -- all want to distance Russia from the West. These forces have been extremely active in recent months, doing their best to sour relations with the West in general and the US in particular.

Russian diplomats and officials have induced the Kremlin to take an uncompromising stand on the Kaliningrad transit visa issue, arguing that if Putin banged on the table, the West immediately would compromise on Russia's terms -- a forecast that, of course, did not pan out. The idea, apparently, was to make Putin angry over Western "intransigence."

Moscow has announced its intention to sign a long-term $30 billion cooperation deal with Iraq -- an attempt, obviously, to prop up a regime that the US is intent on overthrowing. Kremlin insiders allege that a pro-Saddam oil lobby, led by Russia's top oil firm LUKOIL, is exerting undue influence over the Russian foreign ministry, which recently has been intensifying its rhetoric in support of Saddam Hussein.

Moscow also has been signing additional arms trade deals with China and Iran, pledging to sell high-capability jets, sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles that may be used against US forces in the Gulf and around Taiwan.

On 23 August, Russian jets bombed Georgian territory, killing one man and wounding seven other Georgian civilians. Russian officials adamantly denied any involvement. Two days later White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in effect publicly accused Russian officials of lying about the attack on Georgia. Fleischer also charged Russia with "escalating tensions" in the region and added, "we call again urgently for a political settlement to the conflict in Chechnya."

The anti-American lobby seems to have been working quite successfully this summer. From the Black Sea in the west to the Yellow Sea in the east -- virtually through the entire "arch of instability" -- Russia and the US today are opposing each other, albeit indirectly, through proxies, but still very much as in the good old days of the Cold War. Even in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban -- the common US and Russian enemy -- operational "antiterrorist" cohesion is not at all as close as before.

I, personally, as a citizen of Russia, am very pleased that this rift has postponed, for the time being, the import of Taiwan's radioactive waste into my country. However, in all other respects the partial restoration of the anti-Western "multipolar world" policy is clearly to Russia's long-term detriment. Even the "elite" in Moscow, that is lining its pockets with illegal proceeds from arms deals with anti-American states, knows that this garage sale will be over in a few years, when there no longer will be much Soviet material left to peddle. Actually many (including Putin himself) reiterate (and perhaps understand) that "the future of Russia is with the West." However, then another rogue state knocks on the door, offering a multibillion-dollar "cooperation agreement" and, on top of that, well-placed bribes to persons that matter, so that, once again, "the future of Russia" is postponed.

Notes:

1 Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.

2 Previously aligned with Russia.


Copyright ISCIP 2002
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
for Perspective.




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