Guilt by association: Russia close to Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ status

The Minnesota Daily

MOSCOW (L.A. Times) – The more U.S. officials press Russia to abandon deals with Iran, Iraq and North Korea, the closer Moscow’s relations appear to become with the nations President George W. Bush calls the “axis of evil.”

Russia has plans for a $40-billion trade deal with Iraq and more nuclear reactor sales to Iran and is pushing a project to link the Trans-Siberian Railroad with lines belonging to North Korea.

Whenever Russia cozies up to these states, U.S. officials like to point out that losing American good will can be expensive. A good relationship with the United States would be worth a lot more financially to Russia than whatever Iran, Iraq or North Korea can offer, they argue.

Many observers speculate that Russia’s cooperation with the three countries has a political edge, designed to prod America and enable it to compete for global influence.

But one motivation may be more fiscal than political. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is pursuing a more muscular and pragmatic direction in Russian foreign relations – one in which the bottom line is economic.

“It has become clear in Russia that America thinks first and foremost about pursuing its own economic and political interests. And Russia, following suit, is starting to profess the same policies,” said Alexander A. Konovalov, head of the Institute for Strategic Assessment, a Moscow think tank.

“Russia has long had relations with all three states. … And it would be stupid if Russia all of a sudden decided to sever all business contacts with these three countries just as a concession to Washington,” Konovalov said. “Russia cannot afford to make such an expensive gift,” he said.

Russian analysts point to neighboring Ukraine, which under U.S. pressure dumped a $45-million deal to supply turbines to a nuclear power station in Iran four years ago.

Russia made the deal instead, and the power plant, in Bushehr on the west coast of Iran, is now nearly complete. Russia has floated draft plans to supply six nuclear reactors to Iran, despite intense U.S. opposition.

“Russia remembers very well the time when Ukraine pulled out of the Bushehr project in exchange for American promises to invest money in Ukraine’s economy,” said Anton Khlopkov, an analyst with the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, a Moscow-based think tank.

“The U.S. never delivered, and now Ukraine is kicking itself for having dropped out. Today, Ukraine is trying to restore ties with Iran,” Khlopkov said. “Naturally, Russia does not want to find itself in that situation,” he said.

Russia is Iraq’s biggest trade partner, followed by France and Egypt.