Cold war-style accusations are flying between Washington and Moscow, raising fears that recent diplomatic rifts over US-led military action against Iraq could harden into permanent estrangement between the two key partners in the global antiterrorist coalition.
The United States alleged at the weekend that its troops in Iraq are at risk from Russian-made weapons and equipment recently supplied by Russian companies to Baghdad in breach of UN sanctions.
In a phone conversation Monday with George W. Bush, President Vladimir Putin hotly denied the charges and retorted with "analogous questions, which were not answered," concerning similar illicit sales to Iran by "close American allies," according to Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov. (Iran is another Middle Eastern bone of contention between Russia and the US. Charges have been lobbed back and forth about the role of Russian and Western firms in helping Tehran develop nuclear power capability, and suspicions abound that dangerous technology or equipment may have been leaked.)
In the increasingly chilly US-Russian atmosphere, Moscow is accusing the US of "returning to the cold war practice" of flying U-2 spy planes on scouting missions along Russia's borders. In a sternly worded statement Sunday, Russia's Foreign Ministry claimed that three such flights over the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia in the past month, allegedly to observe terrorist activities by rebels from neighboring Chechnya, were actually spying on Russia.
Though both sides insist the antiterrorism partnership built in the days following the Sept 11 attacks must be maintained, many signs point to one of the deepest plunges in US-Russian mutual trust in decades.
Last week the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, decided to indefinitely postpone ratification of the Moscow Treaty signed last year between Presidents Bush and Putin, which mandates deep cuts in the two sides' nuclear arsenals. However, the upper house, the Federation Council, said yesterday that it would continue debating the treaty.
"I can't remember seeing such sharp anti-American moods since the 1960s," says Alexander Panarin, who chairs the department of comparative politics at Moscow State University. Recent opinion polls suggest that more than 90 percent of Russians oppose US military action in Iraq. "Elections are coming up in Russia, and every politician has to take the public's views into account," says Mr. Panarin.
Some experts say the tensions could spiral, especially if the US cuts Moscow out of the anticipated postwar reconstruction of Iraq. Russian oil companies have major business in the region, including a $20 billion contract by the partly state-owned LukOil firm to develop Iraq's huge West Qurna oilfield, which could be nullified by a post-Saddam regime in Baghdad.
"If we are shut out of Iraq, Russia will be angry," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Institute of Contemporary International Studies. "The reasons are not so much economic, as that Russia cannot accept the US acting as though it runs the world."
For many in Moscow, there is deep uncertainty about the further intentions of the US. "If the Americans break Iraq's resistance swiftly, will they target Iran next?" says Panarin. "Russia has reasons to fear the threat coming into our own region."
Mr. Bazhanov raises the same worry: "If the Americans intend to move on to new targets after Iraq, it will be very dangerous," he says. "Sooner or later, the US must realize that it cannot solve all the world's problems on its own. It needs to cooperate with the UN, with Russia and others."
Antagonisms have accumulated over past months as Russia joined France in threatening to veto any UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. In the days since the war began, Russian opposition has toughened. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned Saturday that Moscow will block any future effort in the UN Security Council to legitimize the US-led coalition's assault or its postwar control in Baghdad.
"Iraq does not need democracy brought on the wings of Tomahawks [cruise missiles]," Mr. Ivanov said.
Putin complained to a weekend gathering of security officials that the US-led war in Iraq threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East and spill into the territory of the former Soviet Union. "The war against Iraq is fraught with unpredictable consequences, including increased Muslim extremism," he said.
But the specific charges now being traded threaten to significantly raise the temperature. The US says that technicians from a Moscow-based company, Aviakonversiya, are presently in Baghdad teaching Iraqi specialists how to use the firm's portable jamming units, which are capable of scrambling the GPS signals used to locate the targets for most US precision-guided munitions.
Aviakonversiya's director, Oleg Antonov, says the American claim is "nonsense." But he adds that Iraq "might have constructed such devices itself or purchased them from a third company."
Two other Russian companies are suspected of recently providing to Iraq militarily significant numbers of wire-guided Kornet antitank missiles, and thousands of night-vision goggles - which could neutralize the American advantage in night-fighting. Russian experts say all three companies named in the US complaint do brisk export business, with customers that include the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Jordan, and India.
"These American allegations are plausible," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Russian deputy defense minister who is now an independent security consultant. It's long been known that much of the former Soviet arsenal found its way into the international arms market during the freewheeling 1990s, he notes, but the US charges refer to fresh production of advanced Russian weaponry.
"The fact is that the Kremlin is unable to control the situation, and the general climate of anti-Americanism prevailing among the Russian elite may encourage some businesspeople to take risks," such as dealing with Saddam Hussein, Mr. Shlykov says.
Much may depend on whether the US-led attack is swift and successful in deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and also whether a victorious Washington is magnanimous toward those countries who opposed it.
"This rift needn't be permanent," says Bazhanov. "The US and Russia need each other very much, for a long list of reasons. Let's hope everybody comes to their senses after this, and we return to working together to solve problems."