Damaged Relations

The U.S. government accuses Stanislav Aderin's company of supplying weapons to Saddam Hussein's army.

Aderin, a senior executive at the Russian arms contractor KBP Instrument Design Bureau, hotly dismisses the allegations--with a somewhat discomfiting argument. "If our missiles were being used in Iraq, the American losses would be a lot higher," says Aderin huffily. "But since the American casualties are so light, I assume that our products aren't there."

The Pentagon begs to differ. U.S. military sources recently revealed that several U.S. armored vehicles--including two Abrams M1A1 tanks--were knocked out by KBP-designed Kornet missiles in fighting around the Iraqi city of Najaf. That revelation came just days after the United States claimed that yet more Russian companies had supplied the Iraqis with other sensitive weapons. The talk was of night-vision goggles and sophisticated jammers that could interfere with the satellite-navigation systems relied upon by American high-tech weapons--exactly the sort of equipment that could seriously diminish the coalition's technological edge on the battlefield. (The United States has since claimed that it knocked out the GPS jammers in airstrikes.)

But the abiding question is whether the U.S.-Russian "strategic partnership" forged in the wake of September 11 may have already taken a hit that will prove hard to heal. Today, in the latest chapter of bad blood, Russia's Foreign Ministry called in Washington's ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, and scolded him about U.S. bombs landing near the Russian Embassy in Baghdad. "The safety of personnel of the Russian diplomatic representation was in immediate danger," said the ministry in a statement.

Such reprimands are relatively rare. But it probably wasn't a coincidence that the Bush administration had done the same with the Russian ambassador in Washington when protesting the arms sales reports just days before. The arms sales allegations--and U.S. threats to introduce sanctions against offending Russian companies--are aggravating tensions between the two countries that came to light during the recent diplomatic tussle over the Iraq war at the United Nations Security Council. Russia's opposition to a possible second U.N. resolution approving the war clearly aggravated the Bush administration.

Once the war began, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded an immediate halt to hostilities and his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, denounced it as "illegal." The lower house of the Russian Parliament protested by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Moscow, the arms-control agreement negotiated by Putin and Bush nearly a year ago. Nonetheless, other Kremlin officials persisted in declaring that they didn't want to let differences over Iraq spoil the rest of the relationship. Ever since Putin and Bush began forging closer ties back in early 2001, Moscow and Washington have largely succeeded in papering over the differences lingering between the two countries by stressing joint interests--such as their "energy alliance" (aimed at undercutting OPEC with the help of Russian oil) or the shared war against terrorism. Since then, though, many on both sides have begun to wonder whether the intense emotions excited by the war are playing to the weaknesses in the relationship.

First there's the gap in public opinion. Russians, most of whom remain deeply suspicious of U.S. economic and military dominance, have never been entirely enthusiastic about Putin's relationship with Washington. Now the war is reinforcing that skepticism. Most Americans support military action in Iraq; the overwhelming majority of Russians (around 90 percent) oppose it. While the Bush administration cites Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for toppling his regime, most Russians--in the government, as well as in the population at large--believe that it's all about oil. Those lingering suspicions about U.S. motives were only reinforced by the news, around the time the war was getting under way, that U.S. U-2 spy planes had been passing close to Russia's southern borders. Some also subscribe to the theories like those of retired general Leonid Ivashov, often regarded as a spokesman for hard-liners in the military and intelligence services, who says that U.S. forces in Iraq are planning to stage a chemical-weapons attack on themselves--and then use that as an excuse to nuke Baghdad.

The arms allegations are particularly fraught because they dramatize one part of the relationship where tensions have never been entirely overcome: weapons proliferation. The United States has always criticized Russia's support for Iran's nuclear program, an issue that symbolizes the immense challenge of preventing Russia's vast arsenals of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons from spreading beyond its borders. U.S. officials have occasionally expressed displeasure about conventional-arms shipments, as well--to the inevitable irritation of the Russians who accuse Washington of trying to make life easier for its own arms suppliers in competing markets.

Now the Russians are complaining of double standards again. They say that American and British private companies have also sold weapons to the Iraqis in defiance of the U.N.--with no objections from Washington and London. While U.S. officials admit the difficulty of cracking down on the gray market for military goods from all countries, they insist they have proof that the three Russian companies involved in the latest scandal knowingly--and recently--evaded U.N. sanctions in supplying the Iraqis with military technology. Of the three companies under fire from Washington, at least one of them (KBP, the antitank missile supplier) is fully state-owned, suggesting that someone in the Kremlin could have paid better attention. (One photo of the Kornet in an official catalog of Russian weapons even shows the missile launcher mounted on a U.S.-made Humvee and advertises the weapon's suitability for use under desert conditions.)

The Russians insist that they're just being good capitalists. Oleg Antonov, the director of Aviakonversiya, the company that makes GPS jammers, says that his past customers have included even the Pentagon--but never Iraq. "The fuss raised by the U.S. State Department has become great advertising for our products," he told one Russian interviewer. A senior U.S. diplomat, by contrast, says Aviakonversiya even had some of its people on the ground working for Saddam when the war began.

Needless to say, the situation has undoubtedly been complicated by the dark and secretive ways of the international arms business. The Pentagon has said that the Kornet missiles used against its tanks were delivered to Iraq in January by a company in the Ukraine (which, however, wouldn't have been in a position to make them).

It's possible that these mutual reprimands won't be the last. As the war proceeds, it's likely that even more unsavory dealings will come to light. Gazeta.ru, a Russian news Web site, today published photos showing two former Russian generals receiving medals from the Iraqis shortly before the war began. According to the site, the Russians were being rewarded for helping to work out a plan for defending Iraq against the invasion by coalition troops. If that claim turns out to be true, expect plenty more turbulence down the road for the U.S.-Russian relationship.

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