The US-Russia Imperative

One banner headline declares the United States might use nuclear warheads to destroy biological and chemical weapons sites in Iraq. Another speculates that conventional bombs from an American airstrike could stir up a huge cloud of poison gas from Saddam Hussein's illicit stocks, covering the Middle East with a deadly thunderhead.

Overblown concerns? Certainly. Yet these scenarios have led the news lately - in Russia. The credence with which they have been received by both the Russian public and Kremlin elites says much about some dangerous suspicions arising in the US-Russian relationship.

First, some background. Russia has long been less than enthusiastic about Washington's tough stance toward Saddam. Moscow was a patron of Iraq, back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union. Russian officials would like to collect on overdue bills for weapons they sold Iraq long ago. They are also eager to begin profiting from contracts to help sell Iraqi oil.

Furthermore, Russian elites have been disheartened by their nation's loss of status. There's no longer a superpower Soviet Union. Moscow is even finding it hard to hold together the USSR's rump successor, the Commonwealth of Independent States. The CIS is being wedged apart as some former Soviet holdings, such as the energy-rich ex-republics of Central Asia, establish informal groups centered on their own interests.

So it should come as no surprise that Moscow has taken an independent line on Iraq, with defense minister Igor Sergeyev lecturing a surprised Secretary of Defense William Cohen about the dangers of bombing, and President Boris Yeltsin talking darkly of possible world war.

The US has rightly stuck to its insistence that Saddam comply with UN resolutions, in the face of Russian rebukes. But there is still room for improvement in Washington's handling of post-cold-war US-Russian relations. Great care should be taken to soothe Russia's sensibilities. When US officials appear to ignore Russian counterparts, or order them around, it only strengthens Moscow's nationalist parliamentary forces.

It is in America's national interest to curb Iraq's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. But the current showdown with Saddam should not cause the US to lose sight of one of its preeminent foreign policy goals: preventing Russian nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands. Russian ratification of the START II nuclear arms treaty - a pact currently stalled in Russia's parliament - would benefit the world as much as, if not more than, UN inspection of all Iraq's "presidential palaces."

Yearly talks between Vice President Al Gore and Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin have helped build US-Russian understanding. Such exchanges have never been more important. They should be broadened.

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