US grows more wary of a Putin-led Russia

As Russia's fledgling president tests US, the latest flash point is arms sales to Iran.

While the United States has been mired in presidential uncertainty, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a diplomatic offensive that could further erode Moscow's fragile relationship with Washington.

Mr. Putin, who took control of Russia a year ago following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, has moved swiftly in the areas of weapons sales, arms control, and strategic alliances - upsetting a delicate balance that was struck during the Clinton administration.

He's also given the US a flashback to the cold war with his pursuit of criminal charges against Edmond Pope, the US businessman whom a Moscow judge sentenced to 20 years of hard labor yesterday, for allegedly trying to steal Russian torpedo secrets.

Taken together, Putin's initiatives will provide an early challenge for the next US president, whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore.

"There's definitely been a sense that things have taken a turn for the worse in the past three to four months," says a US official. "People here see Putin as a much tougher customer" than Mr. Yeltsin.

Arms sales to Iran

The most defiant move by Putin so far has been to try to sell arms to Iran, in violation of a secret 1995 agreement between Washington and Moscow that was brokered by Mr. Gore. The US State Department sent a delegation to Russia Wednesday to try to freeze the sale, which includes tanks and other conventional weapons. A long-term concern is that these kinds of transactions could escalate into the realm of ballistic missiles or nuclear technology.

"We've been very successful in the past on constraining arms sales to Iran that otherwise would have undermined regional stability," says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, "and we're going to continue our dialogue with Russia on these critical issues."

Analysts say Russian arms sales to Iran are part of a larger strategy to boost Russia's deteriorating military-industrial complex, while at the same time improving regional security. Moscow is also trying to increase sales to China and India, with the hope that it can raise arms-sales revenue from its current level of between $3 billion and $4 billion, up to as much as $6 billion.

"The Russians face an environment in which they are surrounded by regional powers," says Andrew Kuchins of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They can help manage these relations with strategic arms sales, which can give them leverage."

Putin may also be seeking greater military leverage through his suggestion that he wants to rapidly reduce Russia's strategic nuclear-weapons arsenal, possibly to 1,500 warheads or fewer. While Putin needs to do so first and foremost because of economic concerns, he is likely to use the overture to pressure the US into making similar concessions, officials say.

"The Russians have to go down in numbers anyway," says Mr. Kuchins. "Their preference is for the US to go down also to maintain some of their deterrence from the cold war."

Pressure on the US

First, Putin wants the US to give up plans to build a national missile defense (NMD), which would be designed to protect the US from incoming missiles. Although NMD tested poorly this year and the Clinton administration put a decision about its future on hold, it has strong support among Republicans, including Mr. Bush.

Second, Russia wants the US to reduce its nuclear arsenal to the same low levels Russia hopes to achieve. Bush has said that he would do so - provided he can compensate with defensive weapons like NMD - but the military establishment has yet to endorse a plan that would cut strategic nuclear weapons to fewer than 2,500.

Under Putin, Russia has also sought a greater role in international leadership. Putin has tried to mediate the Middle East crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, a move that has made the US uncomfortable because he is thought to favor some sort of United Nations peacekeeping force, which Washington opposes for now.

Also, Russia has shown surprising support for the creation of a joint European Union rapid-

reaction defense force - and they have even indicated that they may be willing to contribute to it. Analysts say that support likely stems from Moscow's desire to back any global power that can counterbalance the US.

"The Russians are consumed with the foreign impression of their power," says a US official. "They still suffer illusions of being a superpower."

But according to Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Putin's international gambits may be hard to read because he is still trying to consolidate power at home.

While he is extremely popular - his approval rating is 70 percent, according to a recent poll - he still struggles to rein in the remnants of power left by the Yeltsin regime.

What's more, Ms. Hill says, Putin remains an enigmatic figure, and his true intentions with regards to the US are unclear.

"He's been very pragmatic with the US," she says. "He's not seeking confrontation, but he's not being pushed around by the US. Russian foreign policy is very opportunistic - and that's the case here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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