The U.S.-Russia relationship has always had its tricky moments. But things have begun to look a lot trickier since Washington accused Russian companies of supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons that could kill U.S. troops in Iraq. Just days after the start of its invasion, Washington threatened to level sanctions against three Russian companies for arming the Iraqis in defiance of U.N. rules.
Washington and Moscow are already at loggerheads over Iraq. Russia sided with France in vowing to veto a second U.N. resolution authorizing force against Saddam. Last week President Vladimir Putin called for an immediate end to the war, and he is likely to join France in demanding a future Security Council resolution putting the United Nations in charge of the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, rather than a civil administration headed by the United States and Britain. Washington and Moscow still have plenty of reasons to preserve the makeshift alliance they forged in the wake of 9-11. (They range from the joint war against terrorism to the much-ballyhooed "energy alliance.") But it's unclear whether those incentives for cooperation can survive a major loss of trust.
Russia's alleged weapons transfers could well trigger just such a crisis. It's not just that Iraqis are using Russian weapons on the battlefield. American officials stress that the military goods in question--including night-vision devices and GPS jammers, since destroyed in U.S. airstrikes--were supplied to the Iraqis knowingly and recently. Though the sales were apparently by private companies, the Americans insist the Kremlin could have stopped them. The Pentagon is especially concerned about the supply of Kornet-E antitank missiles, designed by a Russian arms contractor called KBP Instrument Design Bureau and sold in large numbers to United Arab Emirates, Syria and other Arab nations in the region. According to U.S. defense sources, many of these missiles have since been smuggled into Iraq, if not sold directly. They appear to have already been used to destroy several M1A1 Abrams tanks.
It all makes for an ominous future. For a long time, George Bush believed he could bank on his friendship with Vladimir Putin. Officially, both Washington and the Kremlin say they want to keep their relationship on track. But privately, sources say, White House officials are "furious." And what if, as some analysts believe, these deals turn out to be just a tip of an iceberg? If U.S. casualties mount because of Moscow's weapons sales, the days ahead could be dark indeed for the United States and Russia.