It's shaping up to be a busy year for Vladimir Putin. In recent months, Russia's president has emerged as our newest ally. In the war on terrorism, the Kremlin has provided indispensable assistance to American efforts in Central Asia. Much to the surprise of arms controllers everywhere, Putin's government is also well on its way to cooperating with the Pentagon's missile-defense plans. Russia and the U.S. have even embarked on an expanded energy relationship, one that could render American reliance on Gulf oil obsolete. By all indications, Moscow and Washington are on the cusp of a historic strategic partnership.
But you wouldn't know it from Russia's ties to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Even as Washington plans for a campaign against Baghdad, Moscow is ratcheting up its support for the "axis of evil."
With Iraq, the Kremlin has just unveiled plans for a massive — and unprecedented — trade and economic cooperation pact. Once made official next month, the agreement, with deals on oil, agriculture, irrigation, electricity, and transportation, is expected to send $40 billion flowing into Iraqi and Russian coffers over the next five years. It is also likely to throw a serious wrench in U.S. efforts to gain diplomatic support for an Iraq operation — a fact which has left Iraqi officials singing the praises of their "main" international partner.
To be sure, Russian interests in Iraq run deep. Since the mid-1990s, the Kremlin has made investment in the Iraqi energy sector a top priority. Several years on, Russia is the single largest shareholder in Iraq's vast oil wealth, with concessions valued at some $7 billion and a hefty stake in Baghdad's future. Still, until very recently, it appeared to be coming around on the Iraq issue. After years of Iraqi diplomatic intransigence, Russia's powerful energy conglomerates have begun to lose hope of serious energy development on Saddam's watch. To boot, Baghdad's stalled repayment of its massive multibillion dollar Cold War debt remains an irritant to Moscow. So, for all its cozy ties to Saddam's inner circle, the Russian government had warmed to the idea of change in Iraq.
But now, as momentum in Washington stalls, Moscow is hedging its bets. The White House may be downplaying the new Russia-Iraq deal, but its consequences are likely to be far-reaching. Saddam is bound to benefit both economically and politically from his newly revitalized relationship with the Kremlin. And with an expanded stake in Iraq, Moscow is less likely than before to back the Bush administration's vision for regime change. This leaves President Bush's plans much the worse for wear.
With Iran, Russia's relations are even more troubling. Over the past several years, despite mounting protests from Washington, Tehran, and Moscow have forged a formidable strategic partnership. Last year alone, the two countries inked at least two major arms and defense agreements, worth an estimated $9 billion, on purchases of advanced fighter aircraft, battlefield missile systems, and infantry-fighting vehicles. Not surprisingly, Iran is now the third largest consumer of Russian arms, with an annual trade of around $500 million.
Moscow's support has done wonders for Iran's military capabilities. After years of reconstruction, Tehran is now on the brink of becoming the Persian Gulf's dominant military power. And despite September 11 and Iran's support for terrorism, the Moscow-Tehran connection is still going strong. By some estimates, the Kremlin could deliver $5 billion in arms to Iran over the next two and a half years, decisively tilting the Gulf balance of power in Tehran's favor. Moscow is similarly sticking by its recently announced plans to dramatically expand nuclear and conventional arms cooperation with the Islamic Republic over the next decade — an agenda that will make Iranian acquisition of an offensive atomic capability a virtual certainty.
Putin is even pushing for deeper dialogue with Pyongyang. This month's much-publicized visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the Russian Far East is only the latest in a series of escalating diplomatic overtures between the two countries. In recent months, Moscow has made a U-turn on North Korean proliferation, backing off from criticism of Pyongyang's sales of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction to countries like Syria, Libya, and Egypt. There's even reason to believe that the Kremlin is itself using North Korea as a conduit to funnel arms and technology to Iran. Pyongyang, for its part, is fast emerging as a major Russian arms client, and has grown increasingly vocal in its support for an expanded Russian presence in Central and South Asia.
Moscow's maneuvers don't just jeopardize U.S. plans for Iraq. Its ongoing assistance to the hostile regimes in Tehran, Baghdad, and Pyongyang also threatens Washington's larger policies in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.
In the days after September 11, Vladimir Putin publicly broke ranks with many in Moscow by articulating his support for U.S. efforts. If the White House is serious about expanding the war on terrorism, it should press Russia's president to prove it by scaling back his courtship of the "axis."